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Protecting Mission Critical Systems : Securing the Energy Grid

Last winter, two power distribution companies in Ukraine were breached, resulting in a blackout that affected more than 200,000 people. The hackers responsible “likely used BlackEnergy3 to get into the utilities’ business networks,” according to Wired’s Kim Zetter. From there, it was just a matter of navigating to operator systems and turning the lights off.

“The operator grabbed his mouse and tried desperately to seize control of the cursor, but it was unresponsive,” Zetter wrote. “Then as the cursor moved in the direction of another breaker, the machine suddenly logged him out of the control panel.”

Fortunately, there were no reports of terrorist activity during the outage. Nevertheless, the events set a frightening precedent. According to U.S. officials, energy infrastructure in the U.S. is just as vulnerable to the tactics used to bring down parts of Ukraine’s power grid. The possibility that an attack on the power grid could be used for politically motivated reasons, or as a form of terrorism, is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

Understanding the Stakes

Nearly every component of our modern infrastructure is in some way driven by the power grid. Hospitals, water systems, public transportation, traffic lights, surveillance cameras, chemical manufacturing plants, data centers and government agencies are just some of the essential amenities that could be severely disrupted in the event of a premeditated attack against the power grid – to the extent that lives could be put in danger.

Offline traffic lights could cause gridlock, making it difficult for emergency responders to reach their destinations in a timely manner. Public transportation shutdowns could leave passengers stranded underground. Security systems could fail, resulting in an escalation in crime. Hospitals with backup generators will more or less be running against the clock. Perhaps most frightening of all, the attackers responsible for knocking the grid offline could use the outages to act on more sinister intentions.

Knock the grid offline, and you've effectively undone at least a century worth of technological advancement.

Guarding Against the Worst

The fact that some lines of malicious code can precipitate apocalyptic conditions is a terrifying prospect, but it’s an evil that comes with the convenience of living in an internet-connected world.

That said, it’s important to understand that there are ways to keep systems clean on an ongoing basis. While you may not be able to prevent every instance of malware from occurring, there are ways to wipe any threats living on the system – and that’s a vital component of protecting the power grid. In fact, according to Wired, it’s still unclear as to when the hackers got into the system, but operators were fending off spear-phishing attacks starting as early as March 2015.

With a tool like Faronics Deep Freeze, it’s possible to sanitize critical computer systems, with a daily/ weekly/ custom automated maintenance schedule, using a simple restart. The ‘reboot to restore’ technology effectively eradicates any system configuration changes, thereby ensuring that malware cannot endure on a system long enough to cause problems.

With so much at stake, the time to start guarding against the worst is now. Contact Faronics to learn more.

Suzannah Hastings

Suzannah is interested in all things digital, from software security to the latest technological advances. She writes about ways in which the increasingly internet-driven landscape changes our lives, and what we can expect in the future.