Threats from Every Angle: The Cyber Challenges big and small Facing Electric Utilities

How safe is our electric grid from a cyber-attack?

That’s an increasingly difficult question to answer, as more utilities rely on digital devices to improve grid reliability and integrate renewable resources that they may or may not own. Not only are hackers looking for vulnerabilities in the grid to exploit, but these malicious operatives also seek to enter the grid indirectly, through utility suppliers. Cyber terrorism is a legitimate concern and would have significant safety and economic impacts on any country whose system is compromised.

While large-scale cyber grid attacks—like the one in Ukraine in 2015 that left one-fifth of the country in the dark—get the most attention, electric utilities have another cyber threat that may be more likely to happen. In collecting payments from the public, electric utilities may obtain personally identifiable information (PII) and payment information. This information is highly valuable to a different type of cyber adversary—and must be protected in different ways. It is another concern that electric utility operators need to address.

This is part of the changing world of electric utility companies. As a part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, these utilities have gotten increased attention in recent years regarding their cybersecurity capabilities. Even in that short period of time, though, the needs have changed.

For instance, electric utilities, like a lot of companies, are seeing their network infrastructure grow. As this footprint increases so does the need to protect it.  The challenge is overcoming the gap in understanding the size, scope and behavior of the network. Often, there is a disconnection between how the network is in reality and how the network was built or most recently mapped.

Security analytics allows electric utilities to bridge that gap and get deeper information about their networks. Security analytics can improve visibility into network operations, highlighting suspicious network entity activity. This type of information allows security operations teams to know what is going on in their networks, giving them an opportunity to mitigate any threats before they become a larger problem.

From a development perspective, it is also important to factor security into any new—or upgraded—system development effort. Security should not be an afterthought, but instead built-in from the beginning. This can help reduce the threat surface when these technologies are deployed.

Cybersecurity continues to be a tremendous challenge for every industry. Electric utilities are currently transforming their digital enterprises. With new technologies, such as the intelligent grid, electric utilities are often “building their airplane while in flight.” It is a difficult task to factor security into development, but one that is incredibly important to mitigating risks to the grid and electric customers around the world.

About the author: Alyssa Farrell is the Global Energy Industry marketing manager at SAS. Follow her on LinkedIn and @alyssa_farrell on Twitter.

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