Tighter security over power plant computer systems urged

Current regulations to protect the control systems that support power plants nationwide fall short of federal recommendations, posing a serious threat to the electric infrastructure and national security, witnesses testified at a hearing Wednesday. One lawmaker threatened legislation if standards don't improve.

The hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology was prompted by a simulation that highlighted vulnerabilities in the computers that run water, power and chemical plants. In the March Aurora Generator test, researchers from the Idaho National Laboratories created a video for the Homeland Security Department simulating a cyberattack on a power plant's control system. The attack caused a generator to self-destruct.

"If this administration doesn't recognize and prioritize these problems soon, the future is not going to be pretty," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., chairman of the subcommittee.

The government and industry experts who testified cited flaws in regulations set by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. Certified as the electric reliability organization by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on July 20, 2006, NERC is charged with improving the reliability and security of the bulk power system in North America through the development and enforcement of reliability standards. Recognizing weaknesses in these standards, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released recommendations of its own for the IT security of networked digital control systems used in industrial applications.

"NERC reliability standards [are] less stringent guidelines than [those offered in the] NIST guidance," said Greg Wilshusen, director of information security issues at the Government Accountability Office. "They do not provide the level of standard, mandatory protection required."

Specifically, NERC standards focus on the bulk power system as a whole, but don't properly address the threat of regional outages or the security of the IT components that support the electric grid, Langevin said. By contrast, the System Protection Profile for Industrial Control Systems developed by NIST in collaboration with private sector organizations presents a cross-industry, baseline set of security requirements for new industrial control systems that vendors and system integrators can use. Government has not yet enforced the adoption of these requirements.

"Why [NERC] would have standards below NIST is beyond me," Langevin said. "This is something we're going to [pay] close attention to; perhaps legislation will be required."

DHS has been collaborating with electric companies to improve security measures, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released standards in July 2007 that would further guard systems by mandating the creation of security plans and controls. But testimony from Greg Garcia, assistant secretary of the Office of Cybersecurity and Telecommunication at DHS, left members of the subcommittee concerned about a lack of government oversight.

"We rely on the industry sector leads to collect information on the percentage of industry that has implemented … recommendations," Garcia said, when asked about industry adoption of improved processes. He suggested that the subcommittee ask FERC for more comment.

Langevin said Homeland Security should be "more proactive to make sure that [recommended standards] are actually implemented."

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