Analog Reinforcements

Senators consider throwback defenses for cyber attacks

With cyber-security being a mounting issue of the present (and technology rapidly advancing by the day) instinct would tell us to one-up the challenger. Fight fire with fire, and use the technology at hand as defense against the technology presenting a threat.

It might be better to look in the rear view mirror.

A cyberattack on Ukraine’s power grid in December cut power for 225,000 people, putting Congress on high alert. Many deduced that the American grid was at least as vulnerable and demanded a legislative response.

An analysis of that hack published by the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center and the SANS Institute states the Ukraine attack was “the first time the world has seen this type of attack against [operational technology] systems in a nation’s critical infrastructure.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is calling for the U.S. Senate to protect the country’s critical energy infrastructure from the possibility of cyber attacks.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) has called for the U.S. Senate to protect the country’s critical energy infrastructure from the possibility of cyber attacks.

The cyberattack was unusual because it hit two kinds of critical infrastructure: the electrical grid and the telecommunications system. Attackers generated thousands of calls to one of the Ukrainian power companies, which prevented customers from calling to report outages, according to Sean Lyngaas of FCW: The Business of Federal Technology. The Ukrainian hack was a “really serious warning…[that] this is a crisis waiting to happen,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said in a recent interview. In June, Senator King and three other members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence proposed an unorthodox solution to the pressing issue—one that seems notably dated. It advocates replacing digital devices on the grid with analog ones.

“The United States is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, which also means we’re one of the most technologically vulnerable countries in the world,” King said in announcing the bill.

The legislation would establish a two-year pilot program at the Energy Department’s national laboratories to identify new security vulnerabilities in parts of the grid whose compromise could threaten public safety or national security. The $10 million program would support research and implementation of improved platforms, including “analog and non-digital control systems.”

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on the bill on July 12.

“If all we’re doing is trying to combat hackers with more and more sophisticated and complex software solutions, I think we’re doomed to failure,” King told FCW.

The idea was partially compelled by the response in the Ukranian attack. Its grid operators expedited recovery of systems thanks to an operational safety net. They were able to restore power “in hours because they had these old-fashioned grid control mechanisms and the people to operate them,” said Paul Stockton, who as an assistant secretary of Defense led the Pentagon’s response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

He added that the idea of maintaining certain analog or electromechanical control systems to shelter them from hackers is promising. However, the U.S. “power grid is much more technologically sophisticated [than Ukraine’s], grows more so every year, and that introduces new attack surfaces for adversaries to exploit,” said Stockton, who is now managing director of consulting firm Sonecon.

In recent years, the U.S. power grid has become increasingly automated through billions of dollars of investments in “smart grid” technologies that can save customers money and electricity. The Senate bill’s embrace of analog stands in contrast to those modernization efforts, but King said the two are not mutually exclusive.

“I’m not…suggesting that we should repeal the 21st century,” he said. “We’re not talking about de-digitizing the grid in any serious way” but instead isolating certain nodes on the grid.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Smart Sensors | Electrical Apparatus Magazine - July 21, 2016

    […] King from Maine, have read this writing on the wall and proposed mediums that could enlist more traditional solutions as defensive backup. Senator King and three other members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have proposed […]

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