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Largest U.S. energy marketing agency used outdated security patches

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The government's largest renewable power transmission agency used a default password to protect its electricity scheduling database and regularly failed to update security software, an Energy Department inspector general found.

The Western Area Power Administration markets and delivers hydroelectric energy to utilities serving millions of homes and businesses in the Rocky Mountain, Sierra Nevada, Great Plains and Southwest regions. The agency depends on information technology systems to manage its massive electrical power complex and finances, according to federal officials.

Testing uncovered a public-facing server “that was configured with a default username and password,” states a new report by Energy Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman. “This high-risk vulnerability could have been exploited by an attacker from any Internet connection to obtain unauthorized access to the internal database supporting the electricity scheduling system.”

Intruders also could have accessed other computer stations at Western’s offices and its customers' offices through the same glitch, noted the audit, which was released on Friday. IG officials did not probe any supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems that control electricity flow “because of concerns over the potential impact to operations,” Friedman wrote.

Of the 105 workstations that investigators evaluated, nearly all contained at least one high-risk vulnerability involving software patches. One network server that was running outdated software “could disrupt normal business operations,” if a perpetrator performed a "remote code execution" attack to manipulate the server from afar, the report stated.

Western also was too generous in granting employees access to its systems. In at least five instances, the agency did not block personnel from computers used for power maintenance and scheduling after they stopped working for the agency. “A former employee had been retired for more than a year and yet still had access to the scheduling system,” Friedman wrote.

The problem, in this situation, was Western officials were not automatically disabling user accounts after certain periods of inactivity, he said. “Failure to implement these access security controls could result in a knowledgeable individual using information technology resources for unauthorized and sometimes malicious purposes that may be detrimental to Western's operations,” Friedman added.

During fiscal 2011, Western’s operating revenues totaled $1.4 billion and operating expenses were $1.02 billion. The agency sells and transmits power through 17,000 miles of lines and 296 substations.

At an event in Washington on Oct. 31 hosted by Government Executive Media Group, officials from Energy and the Homeland Security Department will describe current activities aimed at helping public and private sector utilities prioritize cybersecurity network investments.

Most of the security gaps exposed during Western’s audit were the result of neglecting to follow policies and procedures that could have avoided such vulnerabilities, the inspector general said. For example, some of the weaknesses were “not identified because Western's scan profiles were configured to run a less intrusive scan than typical to avoid bringing down the system,” he wrote. Western officials told the IG that they have since reset their scans to better detect threats.

Western officials have agreed to carry out the fixes and program improvements the inspector recommended, according to the report.

“Based on the actions taken thus far as a result of the audit, and with due consideration to the inspector general’s recommendations, we believe that Western will continue to maintain an effective security program,” Western’s acting Administrator Anita Decker wrote in a Sept. 19 letter after reviewing a draft report. “We remain committed to safeguard our IT infrastructure and maintaining a robust and effective cyber security program.”

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