Report Warns of Cybersecurity Risks to the Grid and Points to DER as a Concern
- Oct 4, 2019 12:43 pm GMT
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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an assessment of electric grid vulnerabilities to cyberattack and issued recommended actions for the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take.
The GAO also cited what it said was a potential vulnerability due to the increased adoption of distributed generating assets across the grid.
The report said that FERC’s approved threshold for compliance with cybersecurity requirements is based on workthat “did not evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets.”
The report said that such an attack could target multiple dispersed systems that each fall below the threshold for complying with the full set of cybersecurity standards. “Responding to such an attack could be more difficult” than to a localized event because resources may be geographically distributed rather than concentrated in the same area. “Without information on the risk of such an attack, FERC does not have assurance that its approved threshold for mandatory compliance adequately responds to that risk,” the report said.
Also in its report, GAO recommended that DOE to develop a plan aimed at implementing the federal cybersecurity strategy for the grid and “ensure that the plan addresses the key characteristics of a national strategy,” including a full assessment of cybersecurity risks to the grid.
GAO also made two recommendations to FERC:
- Consider adopting changes to its approved cybersecurity standards to more fully address the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework.
- Evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets and, based on the results of that evaluation, determine if changes are needed in the threshold for mandatory compliance with requirements in the full set of cybersecurity standards.
The GAO report describes the cybersecurity risks facing the grid, assesses the extent to which DOE has defined a strategy for addressing grid cybersecurity risks and assesses the extent to which FERC-approved standards address grid cybersecurity risks.
GAO said it developed a list of cyber actors that could pose a threat to the grid; identified key vulnerable components and processes that could be exploited; and reviewed studies on the potential impact of cyberattacks on the grid by reviewing prior GAO and industry reports, as well as interviewing representatives from federal and nonfederal entities. GAO also analyzed DOE’s approaches to implementing a federal cybersecurity strategy for the energy sector as it relates to the grid and assessed FERC oversight of cybersecurity standards for the grid.
The report concluded that the electric grid faces what it said are “significant cybersecurity risks” that include:
Threat actors. Nations, criminal groups, terrorists, and others are increasingly capable of attacking the grid.
Vulnerabilities. The grid is becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks—particularly those involving industrial control systems that support grid operations. The increasing adoption of high-wattage consumer Internet of Things devices and the use of the global positioning system to synchronize grid operations are also vulnerabilities.
Impacts. Although cybersecurity incidents reportedly have not resulted in power outages domestically, cyberattacks on industrial control systems have disrupted foreign electric grid operations. In addition, while recent federal assessments indicate that cyberattacks could cause widespread power outages in the United States, the scale of power outages that may result from a cyberattack is "uncertain due to limitations in those assessments."
Although DOE has developed plans and an assessment to implement a federal strategy for addressing grid cybersecurity risks, GAO said that these documents do not fully address all of the key characteristics needed for a national strategy. For example, while DOE conducted a risk assessment, that assessment had significant methodological limitations and did not fully analyze grid cybersecurity risks.
GAO claimed that one such key limitation was that the assessment used a model that it said covered a portion of the grid and reflected how that portion existed around 1980. Until DOE has a complete grid cybersecurity plan, the report said, the guidance the plan provides decision makers in allocating resources to address those risks “will likely be limited.”
The report also said that although FERC has approved mandatory grid cybersecurity standards, it has not ensured that those standards fully address leading federal guidance for critical infrastructure cybersecurity, specifically, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. It cautioned that without a full consideration of the framework, “there is increased risk that grid entities will not fully implement leading cybersecurity practices.”