When Hackers Get to the Grid
Bloomberg Businessweek|January 31, 2022
Drills on a high-security island show the potential devastation of a cyberattack on U.S. power infrastructure
Michael Riley, with Jordan Robertson and William Turton

Five times over three years, a desperate scenario has played out on Plum Island, an isolated spit of land just off the northeastern tip of New York’s Long Island. A large part of the power grid has gone down, leaving the population in the dark and critical facilities such as hospitals growing desperate. A team of utility operators and cybersecurity experts scrambles to get the grid back up, while hackers try to keep it down.

Each emergency was a drill held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s moonshot research arm. Its goal was to expose utilities accustomed to dealing with hurricanes, blizzards, and other challenges to the reality of a successful cyberattack on the U.S. electrical grid.

Concern about such an event has been mounting within the U.S. government for years. Darpa began laying the groundwork for its drills in mid-2015, part of a five-year, $118 million project called Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems—or Radics—after chilling congressional testimony the previous year from then-National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. Rogers told lawmakers that hackers had been breaking into U.S. power utilities to probe for weaknesses and that Russia had been caught planting malware in the same kind of industrial computers used by power utilities. “All of that leads me to believe it is only a matter of when, not if, we are going to see something dramatic,” he said.

The problem has seemed especially urgent in recent months, following a series of ransomware attacks on U.S. facilities and rising tension with China and Russia. Russian troops are massed on the border of Ukraine, a country whose power grid has been hit twice by Russian cyberattacks. Last year the White House launched a 100-day sprint to accelerate longer-term projects fortifying America’s power infrastructure against similar attacks.

In late December, U.S. officials privately warned utilities they could be targeted if relations with Russia deteriorate, telling them their security teams shouldn’t take the holidays off, according to two people familiar with the briefing. On Jan. 11, U.S. officials publicly called on utilities to comb their networks for signs of Russian intrusions. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth recently told reporters that the power grid would also be a target in a conflict with China over Taiwan.

The drills on Plum Island starkly illustrated the chaos hackers could unleash. Attackers hijacked critical safety equipment, shut down communications, and sent fake data to confuse operators making crucial decisions. Utilities that were once confident they could keep from being hacked are no longer so sure. “What we’ve seen as a country is the adversary is going to be successful,” says Walter Weiss, Radics’ program manager. “The issue then is, what do you do next?”

While the government periodically practices such scenarios, utility operators rarely do. Until it ended in 2020, Radics offered the 15 utilities that participated in near-real-world conditions to test new technologies, some of which they’ve since implemented. It also jolted them out of any complacency they may have had, says Brian Lynn, a lead trainer for PJM Interconnection LLC, the country’s largest grid operator, who advised Darpa throughout the program. “Anyone who was there really had their eyes opened up,” he says. “And they were able to go back as a firsthand witness to each of their companies and say, ‘Hey, this is a real thing.’”

Most histories of cyberattacks on physical infrastructure start with Stuxnet. The 2010 attack, believed to have been carried out by the U.S. and Israel, destroyed more than 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges by manipulating the industrial computers that controlled them. Modern power grids are also heavily computerized, making them more resilient during storms and other weather-related disruptions but also opening new vulnerabilities for cyberattacks.

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