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Hackers Target U.S. Power Grid

Government Quietly Warns Utilities To Beef Up Their Computer Security

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page E01

Hundreds of times a day, hackers try to slip past cyber-security into the computer network of Constellation Energy Group Inc., a Baltimore power company with customers around the country.

"We have no discernable way of knowing who is trying to hit our system," said John R. Collins, chief risk officer for Constellation, which operates Baltimore Gas and Electric. "We just know it's being hit."


California, even without the work of terrorists or hackers, can teeter near blackouts on its aging grid. (Mike Blake -- Reuters)

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Hackers have caused no serious damage to systems that feed the nation's power grid, but their untiring efforts have heightened concerns that electric companies have failed to adequately fortify defenses against a potential catastrophic strike. The fear: In a worst-case scenario, terrorists or others could engineer an attack that sets off a widespread blackout and damages power plants, prolonging an outage.

Patrick H. Wood III, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, warned top electric company officials in a private meeting in January that they need to focus more heavily on cyber-security. Wood also has raised the issue at several public appearances. Officials will not say whether new intelligence points to a potential terrorist strike, but Wood stepped up his campaign after officials at the Energy Department's Idaho National Laboratory showed him how a skilled hacker could cause serious problems.

Wood declined to comment on specifics of what he saw. But an official at the lab, Ken Watts, said the simulation showed how someone could hack into a utility's Internet-based business management system, then into a system that controls utility operations. Once inside, lab workers simulated cutting off the supply of oil to a turbine generating electricity and destroying the equipment.

Describing his reaction to the demonstration, Wood said: "I wished I'd had a diaper on."

Many electric industry representatives have said they are concerned about cyber-security and have been taking steps to make sure their systems are protected. But Wood and others in the industry said the companies' computer security is uneven.

"A sophisticated hacker, which is probably a group of hackers . . . could probably get into each of the three U.S. North American power [networks] and could probably bring sections of it down if they knew how to do it," said Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism chief in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Clarke said government simulations show that electric companies have not done enough to prevent hacking. "Every time they test, they get in," Clarke said. "It's nice that the power companies think that they've done things, and some of them have. But as long as there's a way to get into the grid, the grid is as weak as its weakest company."

Some industry analysts play down the threat of a massive cyber-attack, saying it's more likely that terrorists would target the physical infrastructure such as power plants and transmission lines. James Andrew Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the District, said a coordinated attack on the grid would be technically difficult and would not provide as much "bang for the buck" as high-profile physical attacks. Lewis said the bigger vulnerability may be posed not by outside hackers but by insiders who are familiar with their company's computer networks.


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