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Electrical grid overlords take drubbing over cyber attack vulnerability

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US lawmakers ripped into the organization that oversees North America's electrical grid, saying it isn't doing enough to prevent cyber attacks that could cripple the economy.

US Representative James Langevin, chair of the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology, said he had "little confidence" that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) has fully addressed a vulnerability code-named Aurora, in which electric utilities generators and other equipment comes to a grinding halt.

"I still do not get the sense that we are addressing cybersecurity with the seriousness that it deserves," Langevin said, according to this report from IDG News Service. "I think we could search far and wide and not find a more disorganized, ineffective response to an issue of national security of this import. If NERC doesn't start getting serious about national security, it may be time to find a new electric reliability organization."

The public thrashing came after the release of a report (PDF) by the General Accountability Office (GAO) identifying numerous vulnerabilities at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that put the nation's biggest public power company at risk to cyber attacks.

Among other things, the TVA had firewalls that were improperly configured or bypassed, used poorly implemented passwords, and relied on logging practices that weren't up to snuff, according to the GAO report. TVA administrators had also neglected to install key software patches and ran intrusion-detection systems with "significant limitations." The GAO issued 92 recommendations for shoring up cyber security at the TVA, which supplies power to 8.7 million US residents in seven states.

The scrutiny comes as more and more electricity providers try to cut costs and boost efficiency by using so-called supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which allow workers to operate equipment remotely using the internet or telephone lines. The systems may save money, but they also potentially make the equipment vulnerable to cyber attack by extortionists, disgruntled employees and terrorists.

The TVA was already in the process of fixing the problems before investigators began their report, a TVA official said. And NERC, along with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is in the process of implementing new rules for cybersecurity that go into effect in July. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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