Wanted: Smarter cyberdefenses for the smart grid

Making the energy grid smarter will help us better control our electricity bills, use more renewable power and even electrify the cars we drive, experts say. At the same time, though, they worry that a smarter grid will invite smarter, more havoc-inducing cyberattacks and cyberterrorism.

An all-out cyberattack on a highly integrated energy infrastructure could make us long for the days of garden-variety denial-of-service attacks we encounter from time to time today, however inconvenient those can be. Why? Because a fully developed smart grid would control not only electricity but a vast array of other services we take for granted: sewer and water systems, phone service, traffic control, emergency communications and more. That’s why it’s called the “internet of things.”

And if you think the normal internet going down for a while is a pain, imagine shutting down an internet of things.

That’s why the Obama Administration has just announced a new initiative aimed at protecting the US power grid from cyberattacks. The unimaginatively titled “Electric Sector Cybersecurity Risk Management Maturity” project, to be led by the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security, will involve both public-sector and private-industry experts in an effort to develop a “more comprehensive and consistent approach” to protecting the grid from cyberattacks.

“This effort will be focused on performance-based strategies and concrete steps to measure progress of cybersecurity in the electric sector,” said Howard A. Schmidt, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator. “It is important to understand the sector’s strengths and remaining gaps across the grid to inform investment planning and research and development, and enhance our public-private partnership efforts.”

The project will do that by developing a “maturity model” for utility companies and grid operators. That will help energy providers measure their current capabilities and analyze any gaps in their current cyberdefenses. The model is set to be available this summer, and more than a dozen utilities and grid operators are expected to participate in the program on a pilot basis.

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