Texas power failures highlight dangers of grid attacks

March 22, 2021  |  Devin Partida
This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

In mid-February, a winter storm left more than 4 million people in Texas without power. These outages lasted days, leading to substantial property damage and even death, and they paint a grim picture for the future. Should a cyberattack successfully infiltrate U.S. power grids, the results could be deadly.

The Texas power failures did not result from a cyberattack, but they highlight how destructive grid outages can be. As the threat of terroristic cybercrime rises and electrical networks become increasingly crucial, these potential emergencies demand the nation’s attention. Without improved cybersecurity infrastructure, the country’s power grids represent glaring vulnerabilities.

Grid integrity is more crucial than ever

Digital technologies play a critical role in virtually all aspects of life today, making grid integrity essential. With so much relying on the cloud, data center power losses could render much of an organization’s operations useless. While places like hospitals and factories often have standby generators, not every building has reliable backups.

Several people died during the Texas outages trying to stay warm when the power went out, and it could’ve been worse. Officials say the state was minutes away from catastrophic failure that would’ve caused outages lasting for months. When the world relies on electricity to stay alive, power failures can turn fatal.

Grid integrity is also crucial to modern business, with server downtime costing 25% of companies $301,000 or more an hour. That’s an expensive and dangerous problem to mitigate, considering how the government relies on these systems. Severe outages could compromise emergency communications and hinder response times.

Most grids are vulnerable

The Texas grid outages arose because power companies failed to winterize their equipment properly. Environmental protections aren’t the only area in which power grids are vulnerable, though. Much of the nation’s energy infrastructure lacks robust cybersecurity, opening it to cyberattacks.

Many power plants now feature automatic controls and remote access, which, while convenient, create vulnerabilities. Energy companies can use these tools safely, but protecting them is expensive, so many don’t. Cybersecurity typically falls far from the top of power providers’ priorities, yet attacks against energy infrastructure have occurred, even in the U.S.

In 2015, a cyberattack left more than 230,000 people in Ukraine without power for several hours. In 2019, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. revealed that firewall exploits caused widespread communication outages. As cybercrime rates rise around the globe, power grid cybersecurity is a must.

Protecting against grid attacks

This problem is a pressing one, but there’s a solution. While the government has taken steps to protect grids from cybercrime, these requirements don’t cover all vulnerabilities. In the meantime, before authorities pass more sweeping regulations, power companies can take the initiative to improve their cybersecurity.

Today’s grids feature a stunning lack of transparency, limiting incident response speed and efficacy. Implementing smart grid infrastructure enables real-time monitoring and alerts, helping cybersecurity teams stay informed. Devices like smart transformers can also adjust power transmission to mitigate any disruption’s impact.

Power companies must also address the human element, training all employees in cybersecurity best practices. Many past grid attacks have relied on phishing, so teaching workers to spot and react appropriately to these scams will eliminate many risks.

Given how prominent these threats are, power companies must frequently pen test their systems. These audits will help them stay on top of changing security and hacking trends. Frequent software updates will also help protect against evolving threats.

Power companies must address cybersecurity risks

Cybersecurity is no longer an optional pursuit for the nation’s energy networks. This infrastructure is too valuable to leave unprotected, as the Texas outages demonstrate.

The Texas power failures may not have been the result of cyberattacks, but they show what they could do. In light of these threats, power companies must adopt higher standards for securing the grid. Without comprehensive cybersecurity, lives could be at stake.

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