'Smart' technology brings cyber worries at utilities
Published: June 6, 2013
By KRISTI E. SWARTZ
ATLANTA -- "Smart" devices help us drive our cars more safely, monitor our homes from across the country and pay for something with a tap of our phone.
But could such technology become an Achilles' heel?
Georgia Power and other utilities, for instance, use "smart" meters to remotely record how much electricity is being used at a home or business. The digital meters are part of a modern electrical grid that can be run by remote computer-based systems, cutting costs for the company and enabling customers to monitor their electricity use online.
Along with those advantages come concerns about keeping critical and personal information safe. Cyber attacks on the digital power grid or individual meters could cause a massive blackout or customer data theft.
"The threat is real. But this is an industry that ... is accustomed to addressing threats on a daily basis," said Philip Jones, president of the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners.
So far the threat has not become reality. But securing the nation's infrastructure from cyber threats is a growing concern, and one that some say neither industry nor government has adequately addressed.
Last week Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called cyber threats a "quiet, stealthy, insidious danger" to the U.S. and other nations. In one case reported last month, Iranian-backed hackers gained access to control-system software that could let them access oil or gas pipelines.
A congressional report released last month said utilities are complying with existing security mandates but aren't doing more on their own. Gen. Keith Alexander, the U.S. military's top cyber commander, also said some utilities have lagged in spending on network security to stay ahead of hackers.
Tom Fanning, top executive at Atlanta-based Southern Co., Mississippi Power's parent company, said he gets briefed regularly on cyber terrorism and cyber threats.
Southern has installed 4.4 million smart meters across its four-state territory. The energy giant recently named a new head of information security to manage its cyber security risk.
"One of the worries I have -- we get attacked all the time -- is for somebody to use a gateway that gets opened up to your home to steal data, or to infiltrate the electric networks," Fanning said at a recent Atlanta Press Club event. Such attacks have been unsuccessful.
Southern said its chief operating officer, Mark Crosswhite, is on a team of industry and government officials formed to ensure protection of the grid. The company received a "smart grid investment grant" that included a review by the Department of Energy in 2012. The review found Southern "has an established, mature cyber security program ... with a cyber security team that is proficient and motivated."
"This is an ongoing effort because the threat always mutates," Fanning told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We're continuously working to ensure we adapt defenses to changing threats in cyberspace."
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