Keeping New York’s Grid Safe from Cyberattacks

Posted: May 9, 2017
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By: Rob DiFrancesco

With concerns growing that America’s electric grid is increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks, it is important to take all necessary steps to prevent such a catastrophe.

In fact, a cyberattack could be far worse than the historic 2003 blackout, where 96 New Yorkers died and New York City alone incurred more than $1 billion in economic damage. It could also last longer than the blackouts of Superstorm Sandy, from which some New Yorkers did not have power for up to two weeks. 

Adequate Cybersecurity

Protecting the electric grid today – which is composed of highly automated and very sophisticated information technology (IT) systems – means having adequate cybersecurity. And, as we have seen from an array of attacks on the government and large companies, including Anthem, Sony, Home Depot and Target, those with bad intentions can cause huge disruptions and harm.

Lights Out: Consequences of Mass Power Loss

For years, there has been a growing concern about a cyberattack to shut down power, much like the 2015 one that took down the Ukraine’s power grid. In his critically acclaimed book Light’s Out, former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel examines the consequences of a cyberattack on the grid.

Due to the delicate balance between power generators and transmission lines, it would be very simple for an attack to wipe out one third of the country’s power, leaving 30 to 50 million people in the dark for weeks or months.

As Koppel says, “…a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time.”

NYISO’s Efforts toward Cybersecurity

Since the 2003 Blackout, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the non-profit operator of New York’s electric grid, has worked with its stakeholders, peer Independent System Operators and the broader electricity industry to become a leader in cybersecurity issues related to energy infrastructure.

Through a “defense in depth” strategy relying on processes, technology and people, NYISO protects system assets. In 2014, NYISO hosted a Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity Exercise with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which demonstrated a cyber-attack scenario and incident response to participants.

Nationwide Efforts to Securing the Grid

Ultimately, we need adequate cybersecurity at the national level to prevent grid attacks that could result in widespread blackouts. In December 2016, the DOE conducted the Liberty Eclipse Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Energy Assurance Exercise which examined the consequences of a cyberattack on the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

The results provided the DOE with a framework to improve grid security, including better communication between federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments and industry partners on cyber-incident coordination, and better definition of roles and responsibilities in cybersecurity at the federal level.

Steps to Take

In March 2017, Massachusetts Institute of Technology experts, including former Inspector General of the National Security Agency Joel Brenner, published “Maker America Safer: Toward a More Secure Network Environment for Critical Sector,” a report that highlights seven strategic challenges that would greatly reduce the risks to the national grid.

The nation will require a coordinated, multi-year effort to address deep strategic weaknesses in the architecture of critical systems, in how those systems are operated, and in the devices that connect to them,” Mr. Brenner said. “But we must begin now. Our goal is action, both immediate and long-term.”

New Yorkers are all too familiar with the catastrophic effects of power loss. It is important to build upon these efforts and warnings through greater cooperation at the state and national levels, to minimize the likelihood and the resulting damage from any cyberattack.

About the Author

Rob DiFrancesco is the executive director of New York AREA, a diverse organization of business, labor, and community groups.  Founded in 2003, New York AREA’s mission is to ensure that New York has an ample and reliable electricity supply, and economic prosperity for years to come. For more information visit www.nyarea.org.

Download the full pdf here.