The recent DoS incident affecting power grid control systems in Utah, Wyoming and California was interesting for several reasons.

First, the threat actors did not directly attack the systems that control power generation and distribution for the electrical grid, but rather they disrupted the ability of utility operators to monitor the current status of those systems. The utility industry refers to this type of incident as “loss of view.” If an attacker wanted to shut down parts of the grid, one of their first steps might be precisely this step, because it would leave utility operators “blind” to subsequent disruptive actions the attackers would take, such as switching relays off to halt the flow of electricity.

In the case of Stuxnet, one of the first known cyberattacks on industrial control systems (ICS), the attackers performed a similar action whereby they fooled the operators into thinking all was fine with their nuclear centrifuges when in fact they were being spun at very high rates in order to damage them.

The second interesting aspect is that the threat actors compromised a networking appliance to cause loss of visibility. We’ve seen attackers go after network devices in the past, such as in the VPNFilter attacks of 2018, which have been widely-attributed to Russian threat actors.

In these attacks, threat actors similarly exploited unpatched vulnerabilities in network devices so they could spy on network traffic, steal credentials, and inject malicious code into the traffic in order to compromise endpoints. These appliances are relatively easy to attack because they are typically directly exposed to the Internet, are difficult to patch, and have no built-in anti-malware capabilities.

The third interesting aspect is that the electric industry is currently the only critical infrastructure vertical in the US to have regulations (called NERC CIP) around minimum cybersecurity standards. (Other verticals, such as oil & gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and transportation, do not currently have any cyber regulations in place.)

So this incident will likely result in additional scrutiny from regulators, who recently doled out a record $10M fine to a major US utility for multiple incidents of cyber negligence indicating an “ad hoc, informal, inconsistent, chaotic” approach to addressing the regulations. The NERC notice about these incidents included examples such as neglecting to revoke administrative passwords for employees that had been fired, and connecting employee laptops to the control network.

What efforts have been made so far to secure the grid?

The NERC CIP regulations were an important first step but have not been updated to include modern security controls such as continuous monitoring to detect suspicious or unauthorized activities in utility networks. Plus they rely on utilities to self-report incidents, which likely leads to under-reporting, since reporting incidents can potentially lead to fines and shareholder lawsuits.

Some people mistakenly believe that the Department of Defense or the FBI are responsible for defending the electrical grid from nation-state attacks. However, 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector — and the DoD and DHS/FBI have neither the resources nor the legal standing to defend civilian assets before they’re attacked.

What is the likelihood that a real attack would take down the entire power grid?

It is highly unlikely that attackers could take down the entire US power grid because it has been specifically designed to eliminate any single points of failure. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine how determined nation-state attackers could target specific population centers to cause major disruption and chaos, as Russian threat actors did with the Ukrainian grid attacks of 2015 and 2016. For example, disrupting power to the Wall Street area or Washington DC, in the middle of winter, would have a major economic and psychological impact on the population, with the potential of causing loss of human lives as well.

This is not completely theoretical. In March 2018, the US FBI/DHS concluded that since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors had targeted and compromised “government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.”

Read related story in The Washington Post.