Federal Agency Needed to Take Charge of Nation's Power Grid, Says MIT

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-12-06

Federal Agency Needed to Take Charge of Nation's Power Grid, Says MIT

A single federal agency should be in charge of defending the nation's critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks, and not the patchwork of organizations currently in charge, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In a 268-page report on the future of the United States electric grid through 2030 released Dec. 5, a team of MIT researchers recommended that a single federal agency have the appropriate regulatory authority to be responsible for cyber-security preparedness, response and recovery. The report looked at ways to safeguard the power grid, the need for utilities to switch to smart meters and improve the grid's efficiency, and funding for research and development to develop procedures for responding to cyber-attacks, among other things.

Cyber-attacks will happen, but a single agency would be better able to address the problem rather than several federal, state and local entities responsible for various parts of the grid trying to coordinate with each other, the researchers wrote. Such a mishmash of organizations are not working together, even though cyber-security regulations for bulk power systems already exist. However, the researchers noted that local distribution utilities are not subject to these regulations.

"This lack of a single operational entity with responsibility for grid cybersecurity preparedness as well as response and recovery creates a security vulnerability in a highly interconnected electric power system comprising generation, transmission, and distribution," the researchers wrote.

No single agency has responsibility and authority for the entire grid, although the Obama administration and members of Congress have stated that the Department of Homeland Security should take the lead role. Other members of Congress have suggested that the Department of Energy or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should be in charge. There have even been discussions of putting the Department of Defense in charge. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, recently said any government action in cyberspace must be led by the DHS, with regular reviews to ensure that civil liberties and privacy are protected.

A new bill that would clearly outline the Department of Homeland Security's role as the lead federal agency protecting critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks will be introduced next week, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security's Cyber-security, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies Subcommittee said Dec. 6. He did not expect the subcommittee to have time to mark it up and approve it before the end of the year.

New House Bill Taps DHS to Handle Infrastructure Security


Lungren said his bill would "make very explicit who should be in the driver's seat" when it comes to securing critical infrastructure. "In the civilian capacity, it ought to be DHS. This is such an important issue. It should not be left vague," he said.

The bill offers an alternative to the Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation approved last week by the House Intelligence Committee that would allow government agencies to share classified intelligence about cyber-attacks and threats with the private sector. Lundgren's bill would create a nonprofit National Information Sharing Organization to coordinate cyber-intelligence sharing between critical infrastructure operators, private companies, educational institutions and government agencies. NISO's board would be made up of 10 private-sector individuals representing critical infrastructure stakeholders and five federal officials, selected by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

 The fact that the bill puts a civilian agency in charge of cyber-security instead of the Defense Department is reassuring, Gregory Nojeim, a senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in his congressional testimony. While praising the absence of the "kill switch" for the Internet in which the government could shut down access online, Nojeim is still concerned about the extent of information that companies would share with the government. He recommended limits on the types of data that could be shared.

In the MIT report, researchers acknowledged that cyber-attackers will succeed at some point. "Perfect protection from cyber-attacks is not possible," they wrote. "It is thus important for the involved government agencies (i.e., NIST, DOE, FERC, and DHS), working with the private sector in a coordinated fashion, to support the research necessary to develop best practices for response to and recovery from cyber-attacks on transmission and distribution systems, so that such practices can be widely deployed," the researchers added.

Fears about an attack on critical infrastructure have been around for years, but recently gained more attention as weaknesses in the supervisory control and data acquisitions systems monitoring infrastructure and other industrial control systems were identified. Just recently, an FBI official told attendees at a security conference in London that cyber-attackers had remotely breached the critical infrastructure of three U.S. cities but had not done anything malicious.

A 2011 report from the Electric Power Research Institute found that about $3.7 billion in investment would be needed to protect the grid from cyber-attacks, according to MIT researchers.

"Despite alarmist rhetoric, there is no crisis here. But we do not advise complacency," the researchers wrote.



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