Officials at several power companies said they had invested heavily in new equipment and software to protect their computers. Many would speak only in general terms, saying divulging specifics could assist hackers.
"We're very concerned about it," said Margaret E. "Lyn" McDermid, senior vice president and chief information officer for Dominion Resources Inc., a Richmond-based company that operates Dominion Virginia Power and supplies electricity and natural gas in other states. "We spend a significant amount of time and effort in making sure we are doing what we ought to do."
California, even without the work of terrorists or hackers, can teeter near blackouts on its aging grid.
(Mike Blake -- Reuters)
Executives at Constellation Energy view the constant hacking attempts -- which have been unsuccessful -- as a threat and monitor their systems closely. They said they assume many of the hackers are the same type seen in other businesses: people who view penetrating corporate systems as fun or a challenge.
"We feel we are in pretty good shape when it comes to this," Collins said. "That doesn't mean we're bulletproof."
The biggest threat to the grid, analysts said, may come from power companies using older equipment that is more susceptible to attack. Those companies many not want to invest large amounts of money in new computer equipment when the machines they are using are adequately performing all their other functions.
Security consulting firms said that they have hacked into power company networks to highlight for their clients the weaknesses in their systems.
"We are able to penetrate real, running, live systems," said Lori Dustin, vice president of marketing for Verano Inc., a Mansfield, Mass., company that sells products to companies to secure SCADA systems. In some cases, Dustin said, power companies lack basic equipment that would even alert them to hacking attempts.
O. Sami Saydjari, chief executive of the Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.-based consulting firm Cyber Defense Agency LLC, said hackers could cause the type of blackout that knocked out electricity to about 50 million people in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada in 2003, an event attributed in part to trees interfering with power lines in Ohio. He said that if hackers destroyed generating equipment in the process, the amount of time to restore electricity could be prolonged.
"I am absolutely confident that by design, someone could do at least as [much damage], if not worse" than what was experienced in 2003, said Saydjari, who was one of 54 prominent scientists and others who warned the Bush administration of the risk of computer attacks following Sept. 11, 2001. "It's just a matter of time before we have a serious event."