Global Power Grids Are Becoming Increasingly Vulnerable to Cyber Attacks

March 4, 2021

More than five years after massive cyber attacks left a quarter of a million Ukrainians without electricity, the world’s power grids have become even more vulnerable to hackers.

As utilities turn to varying sources of renewable energy and add millions of other components like smart meters, they’re rapidly multiplying the number of connections and sensors along their networks, widening the potential for intrusions.

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“Power grids are getting increasingly vulnerable because of digitalization and the use of more smart applications,” said Daine Loh, a Singapore-based power and renewables analyst at Fitch Solutions.

Such a threat was recently highlighted by an initial probe in India that found an October blackout in Mumbai may have been caused by cyber sabotage. That outage affected stock markets, trains and thousands of households in the nation’s financial hub. The disruptive potential of grid failures — as seen in Texas last month due to a sudden deep freeze — makes the sector a key target, particularly for state-based hostile actors.

Over the past four decades, power plants and substations have been moving from manual to automatic controls, and have allowed remote access to both public and private networks for data analysis, leaving them exposed to attacks.

Producers and distributors have sometimes been reticent to spend on protecting against low-probability attacks, said Andrew Dowse, Perth-based director of defense research and engagement at Edith Cowan University.

Sometimes there’s a reluctance on the part of providers to install mitigation capabilities because they believe they don’t hold that many secrets or confidential information, Dowse said. Instead of the probability, they should focus on the plausibility of such events, he said.

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The U.S. Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration said in December they were among targets in a suspected Russia-backed hack.

Attacks aren’t just confined to power grids. Recorded Future, a privately held cyber-security firm based near Boston that tracks malicious activity by nation-state actors, said it noticed activity by a China-linked group against an Indian maritime port this week.

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“Essential state infrastructures like power grids and nuclear reactors have been and will continue to be a target of cyber attacks because modernization allows internet connectivity, which makes them vulnerable,” said Kim Seungjoo, a professor at Korea University’s School of Cybersecurity. “It’s almost a natural instinct of hackers, especially the state-sponsored ones, to attack energy infrastructure because they can easily disrupt national security.”

–With assistance from Ann Koh and Krystal Chia.

Photograph: An electric repeater station provides power to the CME Group Inc. data center in Aurora, Ill., on Friday, May 25, 2018. Photo credit: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg.

Topics Trends Cyber

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