Tighter security over power plant computer systems urged

Tighter security over power plant computer systems urged
Tighter security over power plant computer systems urged 

By Jill R. Aitoro  
October 18, 2007

Current regulations to protect the control systems that support power 
plants nationwide fall short of federal recommendations, posing a 
serious threat to the electric infrastructure and national security, 
witnesses testified at a hearing Wednesday. One lawmaker threatened 
legislation if standards don't improve.

The hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging 
Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology was prompted by a 
simulation that highlighted vulnerabilities in the computers that run 
water, power and chemical plants. In the March Aurora Generator test, 
researchers from the Idaho National Laboratories created a video for the 
Homeland Security Department simulating a cyberattack on a power plant's 
control system. The attack caused a generator to self-destruct.

"If this administration doesn't recognize and prioritize these problems 
soon, the future is not going to be pretty," said Rep. Jim Langevin, 
D-R.I., chairman of the subcommittee.

The government and industry experts who testified cited flaws in 
regulations set by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. 
Certified as the electric reliability organization by the Federal Energy 
Regulatory Commission on July 20, 2006, NERC is charged with improving 
the reliability and security of the bulk power system in North America 
through the development and enforcement of reliability standards. 
Recognizing weaknesses in these standards, the National Institute of 
Standards and Technology released recommendations of its own for the IT 
security of networked digital control systems used in industrial 

"NERC reliability standards [are] less stringent guidelines than [those 
offered in the] NIST guidance," said Greg Wilshusen, director of 
information security issues at the Government Accountability Office. 
"They do not provide the level of standard, mandatory protection 

Specifically, NERC standards focus on the bulk power system as a whole, 
but don't properly address the threat of regional outages or the 
security of the IT components that support the electric grid, Langevin 
said. By contrast, the System Protection Profile for Industrial Control 
Systems developed by NIST in collaboration with private sector 
organizations presents a cross-industry, baseline set of security 
requirements for new industrial control systems that vendors and system 
integrators can use. Government has not yet enforced the adoption of 
these requirements.

"Why [NERC] would have standards below NIST is beyond me," Langevin 
said. "This is something we're going to [pay] close attention to; 
perhaps legislation will be required."

DHS has been collaborating with electric companies to improve security 
measures, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released 
standards in July 2007 that would further guard systems by mandating the 
creation of security plans and controls. But testimony from Greg Garcia, 
assistant secretary of the Office of Cybersecurity and Telecommunication 
at DHS, left members of the subcommittee concerned about a lack of 
government oversight.

"We rely on the industry sector leads to collect information on the 
percentage of industry that has implemented ... recommendations," Garcia 
said, when asked about industry adoption of improved processes. He 
suggested that the subcommittee ask FERC for more comment.

Langevin said Homeland Security should be "more proactive to make sure 
that [recommended standards] are actually implemented."

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