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Hacks on Gas (and the Grid): Relationship between Cybersecurity, Energy and National Defense

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Hacks on Gas (and the Grid): Relationship between Cybersecurity, Energy and National Defense

Whenever a doomsday scenario involving the nation’s computer networks is invoked, invariably one aspect of it involves a massive disruption of the electrical grid. Computers go haywire, expensive and scarce hardware is destroyed, and a large segment of the populace can be left to cope without electricity for extended periods.  Of course natural disasters demonstrate that outages can occur regularly in the United States, particularly in the wake of weather-related events, but there are valid concerns about how computer control of energy generation and distribution might bear the brunt of a significant cyber attack.

There is no shortage of concern in the U.S. Department of Defense regarding cyber attacks, including targets in the energy sector. This concern was the impetus for anew paper entitled “Hacks on Gas: Energy, Cybersecurity and U.S. Defense,” commissioned by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute for its New Realities: Energy Security in the 2010s and Implications for the U.S. Military conference.

The U.S. Army has learned a great deal in of its tasks to deliver fuel resources to very difficult places in its protracted land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even before the Internet boom of the 1990s, the Army was learning how to be net-centric in linking sensors and communications. That has meant deploying lots of energy hungry technology in the field. In response, Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke has spent a great deal of her effort in making efficiency a priority in the far flung outposts in Afghanistan, where the planning and preparation of each new supply run begins almost as soon as the previous one ends.

Supply of fuels has often been a preoccupation for the Army in its major campaigns. George S. Patton incessantly lobbied Ike for a larger portion of fuel to be trucked forward to his Third Army as it drove across France in 1944. Back then, the Army used about one gallon of fuel per man per day. By 2007, the figure was 16 gallons.

What has also changed is how the Army manages its logistics. DoD logistics have become an important component of the net-centric warfare concept, in which information technologies are leveraged to change the way the organization fights. So now the Army uses a DoD digital fuels management system, which operates over the DoD’s unclassified network – NIPRNet. Protecting this network, which needs to be fairly open so that it is widely available, will be a significant DoD objective. This is the obvious cyber and energy problem the Army faces today and moving forward.

Less obvious is the Army’s reliance on the electrical grid. According to the Defense Science Board, “About 85% of the energy infrastructure upon which DoD depends is commercially owned, and 99% of the electrical energy DoD installations consume originates outside the fence.” U.S. forces also rely on foreign utilities for power on overseas bases. Backup electrical power for the DoD isn’t very different than corporate or municipal actors, i.e. via an onsite generator.

The Army and DoD are in the same boat as the American public in relying upon an electrical grid that is subject to disruption. Maintenance of the grid in a relatively steady state across fluctuations in demand is a remarkable feat of engineering. When the balance between production and consumption tips, the entire power grid is at risk of collapse, as it did in July 2012 in India impacting some 320 million people.

India’s grid collapse, along with the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which affected 50 million in the U.S. and Canada, are examples of how electrical grid operation may be impacted by cascading failures. The 2003 Blackout was caused by transmission wires coming into contact with tree limbs, but the deeper failure was that software at the Akron, Ohio utility responsible for the initial point of failure didn’t sound an alarm, because of a previously unknown bug in its code. What was a small utility’s issue grew as interconnected utilities struggled to balance the load on their portions of the grid.

This combination of software vulnerability combined with the capacity for cascading failures is why there should be concern on the cybersecurity of the power grid. For the DoD it means relying on a power grid that may not be to military specification. The services are accustomed to purchasing bespoke platforms such as warships or combat aircraft with the capacity to absorb damage or operate for prolonged periods. While it is likely an exaggeration that our grid is antiquated, as Bill Richardson argued after the 2003 Blackout, stating “We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.”

Since 2008, the U.S. has made investments in new technologies for electricity transmission, including hefty investments on “smart grid” initiatives underwritten through federal stimulus spending. But the deployment of new computing technologies to the grid has pros and cons. Yes there are possible gains in knowledge of the grid and efficiency (as well as new billing models provided via smart metering), but we must accept the well worn assumption that for every few thousand lines of software code exists a software bug that may be exploited by a determined hacker. Multiply that by the millions of lines of code across the computers and logic controllers throughout the electricity grid and there is ample reason to worry.

This post was drafted by Chris Bronk, Fellow in Information Technology Policy and Director of the Program on Energy and Cybersecurity in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Source: Forbes


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