When it comes to the nation's power grid, there's a lot at stake, and enemies know it because they've attacked electric utilities hundreds of times within the past several years.
An investigation by USAToday and more than 10 of its community newspapers and television stations across the country found that between 2011 and 2014 alone, there were 362 reported physical and cyberattacks by electric utilities that resulted in partial power outages or disturbances.
Most of the attacks were physical; 14 of them were cyberattacks. But according to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of "cyber incidents" on the nation's power infrastructure has been on the rise recently.
In 2013, it received 151 reports of "cyber incidents," compared to 2012 when it received 111. In 2011, that number was considerably smaller at just 31. It's unclear, however, whether the rise is due to more cyber activity or merely the result of the industry actually reporting those incidents.
Whatever the reason may be, however, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Cheryl LaFleur suggested that more must be done to protect the massive interconnected grid because even one localized disruption could result in a much bigger, potentially nationwide, crisis.
"It's one of those things: One is too many, so that's why we have to pay attention," LaFleur said. "The threats continue to evolve, and we have to continue to evolve as well."
Such threats were the subject of For the Record‘s episode “Unguarded” last April.
While cybersecurity has been at the forefront of many national security conversations in the wake of recent events, former energy security regulator Josh Axelrod acknowledged the physical risks are just as significant, and perhaps easier to carry out than the cyber-related risks.
"If you know where to disable certain transformers, you can cause enough frequency and voltage fluctuation in order to disable the grid and cause cascading outages," Axelrod said. "You can pick up a hunting rifle at your local sporting goods store and go do what you need to do."
“Without electricity we aren’t a civilization, and this is a major societal vulnerability,” former CIA Directer James Woolsey told TheBlaze last year, specifically commenting on a 2013 power station attack in California. That attack was characterized by one official as a "dress rehearsal."
As the USAToday investigation that surveyed 50 electrical utilities found, critical energy equipment such as power transformers aren't as secure as they could be. They're often in plain sight of any person who happens to walk by, protected mostly by chain-linked fences and in some cases security cameras. In addition, law enforcement officers still have not identified suspects involved in "many" of the hundreds of attacks that have occurred since 2011.
To complicate matters further, the organization that oversees energy security guidelines is funded by the power industry itself, which could raise potential conflict of interest concerns, especially given that 30 percent fewer security penalties were issues from 2013-2014, despite the fact that more disruptions were reported during that same time period.
Read the full report from USAToday here.
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