Experts debate U.S. power grid's vulnerabilities to hackers

Computerworld |  Security

"One risk with a situation like this is that it exposes the flaws of the system to public scrutiny," said Thompson. "It shows everyone how vulnerable our economy is to a power disruption. Like it or not, there are people in the world [who] pay attention to such revelations."

"Anytime the visibility of a system is raised, it acts as an attack magnet," said John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Pescatore recommended that companies, particularly utility companies, treat the power crisis as a siggnal to begin stepping up network monitoring and security operations. Although he downplayed the likelihood that a cyberattack could lead to widespread power failures, Pescatore characterized the link between the stress level on the power grid and its vulnerabilities as "like blood in the water to a shark."

"Hackers smell weakness and a chance for their 15 minutes of fame," said Pescatore.

But electric companies have made significant progress in stepping up their security preparedness and have also set up an Information Sharing and Analysis Center to enable system administrators to share information with the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, said Gene Gorzelnik, a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.

"When a transmission system is stressed, the system operators and security coordinators are operating at a heightened level of alert so they can quickly address and return the transmission system to normal from any situation that may occur," said Gorzelnik. "The electric system can withstand sudden disturbances such as electric short circuits or unanticipated loss of system elements. This was the case decades ago, and it is still true today."

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