Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Terrorist Attack Shows Vulnerability in Critical Infrastructure

Terrorist Attack Shows Vulnerability in Critical Infrastructure



Jared Ferris

February 19, 2014 at 2:52 pm


Just after midnight on April 16, 2013, someone slipped into underground

tunnels and cut the phone lines running to the PG&E Metcalf power substation

near San Jose, California. Then two snipers proceeded to fire over 100

rounds into the substation in 19 minutes, knocking out 17 transformers. The

electric company managed to prevent a widespread blackout, but security

officials fear the attack could be a dry run for a larger scale terrorist



Investigators believe that there were two attackers, both of whom remain

at-large and unidentified. Jon Wellingoff, chairman of the Federal Energy

Regulatory Commission at the time of attack, said it was "the most

significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever

occurred" in the U.S. While the FBI does not believe a terrorist

organization is behind it, the attack underscores the growing threat posed

by "lone wolf" attackers. This is also a threat that top U.S. intelligence

officials have recently been warning about.


For example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in his

annual global threat assessment that "homegrown violent extremists will

likely continue to pose the most frequent threat to the US Homeland,"

particularly "those who act alone or in small groups."


Additionally, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned that "lone

wolf" attacks are "the terrorist threat to the homeland-illustrated last

year by the Boston Marathon bombing-that I worry about the most; it may be

the hardest to detect, involves independent actors living within our midst,

with easy access to things that, in the wrong hands, become tools for mass



Furthermore, the substation attack demonstrates the weakness in our critical

infrastructure, as recently warned by Heritage. Clapper has echoed the

warning, saying the critical infrastructure "provides an enticing target to

malicious actors." A recent study by West Point's Network Science Center

found that shutting down the electric grid by causing a cascading failure is

much easier than one would think.


The electric grid is arguably the most important sector of the critical

national infrastructure, since none of the other sectors could function

without it. The liabilities in the psychical structures (e.g., substations,

generation facilities, and control centers) are just part of the

vulnerabilities in the overall electric grid. Weaknesses within the

software, supply chain, operational technologies, and personnel all pose

cybersecurity threats.


To mitigate these threats, Congress should enable effective information

sharing between the government and the private sector, work collaboratively

with utility companies to enhance both cyber and psychical security, and

encourage private-sector awareness, education, and training.

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