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New U.S. tack to defend power grid

Lawmakers are on alert as hackers increase attacks on US infrastructure.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2007

For nearly five years, the US government has struggled to guard the nation's electric grid, drinking water, and other critical infrastructure from cyber­attack. But as hackers continue to infiltrate such systems, and as reports surface of a surge in computer attacks on the electric grid, experts and lawmakers have an urgent message for the Bush administration: Cybersecurity defenses need an overhaul.

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US lawmakers are pressing for a new approach that focuses more on systems that can rebound if infiltrated than on building ever-stronger "fire- walls" to keep hackers out.

On Tuesday, lawmakers on a House Homeland Security subcommittee are expected to unveil a blue-ribbon commission charged with developing a new national cybersecurity strategy in time to offer the next president.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, is close to unveiling a new cybersecurity approach of its own, an administration official told the Monitor. National Security Agency expertise may be deployed to help protect vital control systems of the electric grid and other key infrastructure, The Baltimore Sun reported last month.

"Times are changing very quickly here, and cybersecurity that was good enough even a couple of years ago – the strategy and approach – is obsolete," says Scott Borg, director of the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit security think tank that advises government and industry.

"We do have a growing problem as our adversaries focus on critical infrastructure," concurs Amit Yoran, CEO of Netwitness, a network security firm, and former director of DHS's National Cyber Security Division. In the event of a cyberattack on any critical piece of infrastructure, "what we need is a layered defense in which the overall system is still available – and not a systemic failure."

Both men have been tapped to serve on the new congressional commission.

Driving such concerns are reports that malicious attacks are rising on specialized computer-control systems that open and shut valves on natural-gas pipelines, throw circuit breakers on power lines, and make telecommunications and defense networks, nuclear-power plants and hydro dams do their jobs.

If hackers half a world away break into and commandeer these "supervisory control and data acquisition," or SCADA, systems, then the US grid, pipelines, and other key infrastructure connected to the Internet are vulnerable to interruption or damage, experts say.

Danger to SCADA systems for the electric grid, for instance, was highlighted in a 2002 National Research Council report. At a key meeting in July 2003, officials from the US Department of Energy, DHS, the national laboratories, and other agencies convened to develop a national cybersecurity plan.

Despite that and other efforts since 9/11 to protect control systems from cyberattack, "the federal government lacks an overall strategy for coordinating public and private sector efforts," the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported to Congress earlier this month.

Some experts describe a patchwork defense that has many gaps – and they note that malicious attacks, directed in particular at the electric grid, are growing.

Internet attacks on the 100 electric utility clients protected by SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based cybersecurity firm, leaped 90 percent this year – from 43 attacks per utility per day at the beginning of the year to 93 since May, company officials reported this month. That's about double the rate for other industries SecureWorks protects.

The US has been "in a race against time" since early 2005, when the attention of "black hat" hackers shifted to focus more on probing and exploiting SCADA control-system weaknesses of electric utilities, says Mr. Borg. Yet lights have mostly stayed on – a testament to the notion that industry and government still appear to be ahead in the race.