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Nation's power grid under constant cyberattack, but Congress lax

Utilities' cyber defense efforts said to be rapped by legislators, Congressional report finds

By John P. Mello, Jr., CSO
May 23, 2013 09:11 AM ET

CSO - Utility companies are making only minimum efforts to protect their facilities from persistent and unrelenting cyberattacks, said a Congressional report released Tuesday.

Utilities are complying with mandatory cybersecurity standards, but aren't going any further to protect their critical assets from online marauders, said the report by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

[ALSO: Damage from attack on power grid would be worse than Sandy]

"Utilities tend to be compliance-driven and audit-driven, versus doing the right thing," Vivek Shivananda, CEO of Rsam, a maker of enterprise risk management and compliance solutions, said in an interview.

"They tend to stick the letter of the law and do what has to be done to keep the lights on, but they're not necessarily taking a holistic approach what needs to be done from an overall threat and risk management perspective," Rsam.

Compliance, though, can actually be a deterrent to better security, said Phyllis Schneck, McAfee vice president and chief technology officer for the public sector. She cited several energy companies who wanted to upgrade their cyber protections by going to a whitelisting product but balked because regulations specified antivirus software.

"Companies shouldn't be faced with having to choose between being secure and being compliant," Schneck told CSO.

The Markey-Waxman report, based on information gathered through a survey containing 15 questions and sent to more than 150 utilities, found that the electric grid is the target of numerous and daily cyberattacks.

Those attacks range from phishing emails to malware infections to unfriendly probes.

[Also see: NSA's 'Perfect Citizen' power grid security plan far from perfect]

In contrast with missiles or planes which can be detected by radar, perpetrators are using Trojans, viruses, worms, and purpose-built malware that is not easily and immediately detected, explained Torsten George, vice president of worldwide marketing, products, and support for Agiliance.

"Since virtually every provider's IT network is connected to public networks in order to share production, capacity, and other information, the threat is very real," he said in an email. "While the energy industry has taken pro-active steps by establishing standards for critical infrastructure protection against cyber-attacks, implementation of these guidelines remains a challenge."

Reports of cyberattacks, however, can be misleading, said Justin W. Clarke, a security researcher with Cylance and former security specialist with Pacific Gas & Electric. "An attack could mean that someone tried to connect to my web server, and I didn't like them, or some unexpected traffic came from China or it was actually someone attacking me and trying to break into my grid," he said.

While phishing and spam emails may be considered an attack, he said, they aren't anything extraordinary even for ordinary users. "Those spam messages, in most cases, aren't a direct attack on the power grid," Clarke said. "In reality, they just want credit card numbers."

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