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

A federal agency should have the lead role in securing the critical infrastructure, MIT researchers said, but they did not state whether that agency should be Homeland Security.

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 thefuture 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.