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DOE Discloses Power Grid Threats

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By Allan Holmes August 3, 2010

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The following post was written by Nextgov reporter Aliya Sternstein.

In the interest of serving the greater public good, the Energy Department recently disclosed an analysis of the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of private and government electric power grids. Typically cyber weaknesses at private utilities -- and even in specific government energy programs -- are kept close to the vest.

But as the May report states, "although information found in individual stakeholder [system] vulnerability assessment reports is protected from disclosure, the security of the nation's energy infrastructure as a whole can be improved by sharing information on common security problems with those responsible for developing and operating" systems that control the nation's energy infrastructure.

Idaho National Laboratory, the department branch, that performed the tests identified the most prevalent issues plaguing system owners without naming the individual assets. Typical insecure coding practices accounted for many of the security flaws, according to the report:

Assessments reported large [industrial control system] attack surfaces created by excessive open ports allowed through firewalls and unsecure and excessive services listening on them. Well-known unsecure coding practices account for most of the ICS software vulnerabilities, which result in system access vulnerability or denial of service (DoS).

However, poor patch management provides more likely attack targets because the vulnerabilities are public and attack tools are available for them. Once ICS network access is obtained, status data and control commands can be manipulated as they are communicated by unsecured ICS protocols.

Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, noted on his Secrecy News blog that the findings aren't earth-shattering but "by describing the issues in some detail, the new report may help to demystify the cyber security problem and to provide a common vocabulary for publicly addressing it."

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