Okay, Say Someone Hacks into the US Power Grid. Then What?

Jean-Francois Badias/AP

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A joint research project between the Department of Energy and a geographic analytics company is mapping just how far the repercussions could spread.

“On a scale of 1 to 10,” the threat of a cyber attack on U.S. critical infrastructure is “a 7 or an 8,” the Department of Homeland Security warned lawmakers last week. And indeed, someone has been probing the defenses of utilities, key manufacturers, and others. So what happens if hackers launch a network attack that, say, causes a rolling blackout in the Midwest?

How far will it spread, and what about the second-tier effects? What happens to regional chemical manufacturers or nuclear power plants? How long until municipal utilities cannot provide potable water? What would all this do to hospitals, local businesses, and communities?

Right now, answering even the first of those questions is hard enough.

“There’s not a great understanding of how something occurring in the Midwest might affect something in California,” said Ryan Hruska, an analyst at the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory, or INL.

Even without any bad actors targeting power grids or telecom networks, much of the U.S.’s aging infrastructure is vulnerable to disruptions large and small. In 2003, for example, 50 million people lost power when a blackout spread across the Northeast and into Canada. This fragility suggests that nightmare scenarios are possible.

“Typically right now, when a vulnerability is identified or brought to light, the first thing people want to know is, ‘OK, what does that mean for our critical infrastructure, our way of life, the things we’re doing?’” said Shane Cherry, a department manager at INL. “Right now, there’s not really any good ways to answer that question.”

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Enter the cooperative research agreement between the INL and Esri, a geographic information system, or GIS, mapping and analysis company. The government brings the All Hazards Analysis framework, a consequence-analysis tool that looks at cross-sector dependencies; the company contributes software that maps an organization’s IT network in the physical world.  

With Esri’s tool, “you can model the logical and physical network and interact with those side-by-side, so everything I do on the logical network side, I can see replicated in the physical network and vice-versa,” said Brian Biesecker, Esri’s technical director for the intelligence community. “And then I can tie all of this information together in a geographic context. And we believe that the geography provides a common framework for understanding, which then both the IT and cybersecurity folks, as well as the mission and operations folks can understand what’s happening and what the impact of any event in the cyber arena.”

Then INL can feed the map into its AHA framework and study the second-, third- and fourth-tier cascading effects, the real-world ripples of a cyber attack on the most critical parts of American life.

Just how far the team will be able to take this analysis is not yet clear. The two organizations entered a three-year partnership at the beginning of 2017. Will that be enough time to answer questions like how an attack on the Midwest would affect California?

The local level is easier — data from and government offices, utilities, telecom companies and other key sectors is more detailed and reliable, Biesecker said — but there’s little point if it’s not scalable.

“As you get to regional or nationwide impacts, you start to get a lot less precision in the impacts in the models,” he said. “So that’s the research we’re actually doing in this context: We’re seeing if we can expand it beyond the local area into regional- and potentially national-level impacts.”

And scalable not just across different sectors and physical regions, but to the size of an attack as well — everything from a small coterie of ransom-seeking hackers to a group drawing on the capabilities and resources of a nation-state.

“If we weren’t able to scale this to look at a bigger picture, it wouldn’t be as useful,” INL’s Cherry said. “Because cyber attacks or events are really unpredictable, they’re really as much art as they are science. It really depends on the level of sophistication the actor may have.”

The work, and the general idea guiding it, are both of strong interest to the providers and federal and local governments alike, Cherry said. Probably in no small part because the threat of a serious cyber attack on critical infrastructure stopped being hypothetical the moment someone took down Ukraine’s electric grid in the midst of the ongoing geopolitical struggle with Russia in 2015, leaving 225,000 people in the dark. The world got another reminder when Russian hackers blacked out part of Kiev a year later.

U.S. providers are on guard as well: Earlier this fall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DHS warned critical infrastructure providers that they were the target of an ongoing cyber attack campaign that had been probing the nuclear, energy and other key sectors since at least May.

“Based on malware analysis and observed [indicators of compromise], DHS has confidence that this campaign is still ongoing, and threat actors are actively pursuing their ultimate objectives over a long-term campaign,” DHS and FBI wrote in a joint technical alert in October.

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