Proposed Bill Would Help Protect Grid From Hackers

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The nation’s ever growing push for a smarter electric grid means it will become increasingly similar to a computer network with two-way communication. While that has many benefits, it could also leave the grid more vulnerable to attack. That’s why two influential U.S. lawmakers, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., are preparing to introduce legislation called the “Critical Electric Infrastructure Act” that would require strengthening the country’s preparedness against would-be electric grid hackers.

In a statement, Thompson said that “any failure of our electric grid, whether intentional or unintentional, would have a significant and potentially devastating impact on our nation.” The bill would primarily bolster the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, gas and oil, and provide authority for the regulatory body to issue emergency rules or orders if a cyber threat were imminent. The proposed legislation would also require the agency to establish interim standards to protect against known cyber threats to critical electric infrastructure. And the bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to assess if federally-owned electric infrastructure has been compromised by outsiders.

The announcement comes just weeks after a Wall Street Journal report said that cyberspies from China and Russia had penetrated the U.S. electric grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system. And earlier this month two senators introduced what they called comprehensive cybersecurity legislation that, among other things, aims to foster a public-private partnership to coordinate cyber security efforts and would require stricter security standards for utilities.

This latest announcement should be welcomed by advocates that think cybersecurity should rest largely within the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. There has reportedly been an ongoing tussle between the department and the secretive National Security Agency over which agency will have control over the government’s cybersecurity efforts, and Homeland Security cyber chief Rod Beckstrom recently resigned at least partly because of this struggle.

As the nation’s grid is outfitted with more and more computing devices, like smart meters and sensors for monitoring power lines and transformers, the system will become a larger target for those with malicious intent. Many smart grid experts believe this new grid infrastructure will be based on Internet Protocol (IP), and hackers have had decades to perfect their craft on the Internet. But as we’ve reported before, this shouldn’t stop the country’s utilities from upgrading the grid. A smarter grid promises less energy waste during transmission and distribution and fewer outages. It also will make it easier to incorporate more distributed power generation, like rooftop solar arrays, and enable consumers to get more information about their power use.

Action to make the grid more secure from attackers is welcome, but the problem is far from new. As far back as 2004, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy established two multi-year programs at the Idaho National Laboratory to research better practices for power grid security. As part of the programs, the lab has been analyzing, testing and improving cyber security features in the control systems that currently operate the nation’s power grid. While the smart grid buildout will introduce new technologies that have new vulnerabilities, legislators would be wise to consult the scientists and engineers who have been working on these issues for years.

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