Needed: A debate on the security of the power grid, not on leaks about it

Apr 3 2014, 12:52pm CDT | by

Leaks are a part of Washington as old as government secrecy. The recent alleged leak of a Federal Energy Regulation Commission report regarding potential vulnerability of the electrical grid to the Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Smith is yet another item in this long history. That a report would be given to a journalist that expressed concern for the safety of the electrical system is troublesome, however, the health and safety of the electrical grid is a fundamentally important economic and national security issue. It should be subject to fairly open and informed public debate as our society’s dependence upon it is great.

The FERC report Smith cited allegedly contained information pointing to the possibility that simultaneous destruction of nine particular electrical transformers could bring down the electrical grid at a national level and require significant time to return to full operations. Such a physical attack has occurred in one location – the April 16, 2013 incident at Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalfe energy center and transmission substation – in which snipers, “surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley.”  Those who perpetrated the PG&E attack remain, almost a year later, still at large.

Senators Mary Landrieu and Lisa Murkowski, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee criticized the disclosure of the FERC report, and called for the Department of Energy’s Inspector General to locate the FERC employee responsible for sharing the article with the Journal. This follows acting FERC Chairman Cheryl LaFleur’s comments on the Journal’s decision to run the article.  She stated that,

[P]ublication by The Wall Street Journal of sensitive information about the grid undermines the careful work done by professionals who dedicate their careers to providing the American people with a reliable and secure grid. The Wall Street Journal has appropriately declined to identify by name particularly critical substations throughout the country. Nonetheless, the publication of other sensitive information is highly irresponsible. While there may be value in a general discussion of the steps we take to keep the grid safe, the publication of sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility, and gives those who would do us harm a roadmap to achieve malicious designs.

Beyond the line between transparency and irresponsibility raised by Ms. LaFleur, there are several questions to consider. First among them is whether the story on the FERC report revealed anything truly dangerous. Additionally, there is a matter of how much the general public should be concerned about a catastrophic kinetic attack against the grid.

On the matter of the danger to the story, the article stated in what parts of the country the points of failure would be, but added no detail. Beyond sensitive information spillage, when we consider who might attack many pieces of grid simultaneously, the possibilities are probably quite low. Thus, a major physical attack on the grid would be a rare event – not impossible, but unlikely and hard to pull off. A cyber attack is also a possibility, but we are fortunate that process control computing is likely fairly heterogeneous. Nonetheless, policy and assurances are needed for cyber too, as evinced by the GridEx cyber exercise.

As to what policy can do, we should consider strategies for resiliency. My Rice colleague Leonardo Dueñas-Osorio has considered just how “lifeline” systems function and the probability for cascading failures within them. One of his observations is that, “increasing local redundancy mitigates the effects of interdependence on systemic performance, but such intervention is incapable of eliminating interdependent effects completely.” Whether we worry about earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, or terrorists, redundancy seems to be an issue that should be taken up in policy. Of course, redundancy also comes at a cost.

Finally, Senators Landrieu and Murkowski’s outrage at the Journal’s reporting should be placed in perspective. While they can be upset about the FERC report’s finding its way to a reporter (and the report was not a classified document), they should also consider the state of the grid and what can be done to improve it. This week I participated in a conference in which NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and former NSA inspector general Joel Brenner had words regarding transparency in the United States’ signals intelligence agency. While the FERC leak (if it rises to worthiness of the term) is insignificant in comparison with the Drake, Snowden, and Manning leaks, the U.S. government must address the issue of how it can harness dissent into constructive criticism and improvement of policy, process, and oversight.

This post was drafted by Chris Bronk, Fellow in Information Technology Policy and Director of the Program on Energy and Cybersecurity in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

EU to fund agricultural products affected by Russia's ban
Brussels, Aug 23 (IANS) Experts of the European Union (EU) said Friday that the EU would provide additional funding for agricultural products affected by Russia's food import ban.
 
 
Irish man tests negative for Ebola virus
Dublin, Aug 22 (IANS) Laboratory test samples of an Irish man, who died after recently returning from Africa, have proved negative for Ebola virus, health authorities in Ireland said Friday.
 
 
Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites lifts off
Brussels, Aug 22 (IANS) A Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites, the fifth and sixth of Europe's Galileo global satellite navigation system, lifted off from the spaceport in French Guiana Friday, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced.
 
 
Fresh cases of Ebola recorded in Nigeria: Official
Abuja, Aug 22 (IANS) Fresh cases of the Ebola virus disease have been recorded in Nigeria, where the highly contagious disease has already claimed five lives, Minister of Health Onyebuchi Chukwu said Friday.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Katie Holmes moves from NY to California
Los Angeles, Aug 23 (IANS) Actress Katie Holmes, who has been living in New York for two years with her daughter Suri, has now shifted back here. Holmes lived here during her marriage to star Tom Cruise, and then...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Lebanon cautions against repercussions from Syrian crisis
Beirut, Aug 23 (IANS) Lebanon's social affairs minister Rachid Derbas cautioned Friday that the "country is on the verge of drowning" and it cannot bare anymore the repercussions of the Syrian crisis and Syrian...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
EU to fund agricultural products affected by Russia's ban
Brussels, Aug 23 (IANS) Experts of the European Union (EU) said Friday that the EU would provide additional funding for agricultural products affected by Russia's food import ban. On the emergency support measures...
Read more on Business Balla
 
'Iron Man 3' director to make 'The Destroyer' film
Los Angeles, Aug 23 (IANS) Shane Black, who directed "Iron Man 3", will now go behind the camera for a movie adaptation of action book series "The Destroyer". He will direct the film, based on the 1970s adventure...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
170 illegal immigrants missing off Libyan coast
Tripoli, Aug 23 (IANS) A wooden boat carrying some 170 illegal immigrants was missing off the Libyan coast near Tripoli Friday, a coast guard official said. The stowaways were believed from sub-Saharan African...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
NATO chief condemns Russian aid convoy entry into Ukraine
Kiev, Aug 22 (IANS) NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen Friday condemned the entry of a Russian humanitarian convoy into Ukrainian territory without Kiev's consent and without involvement of the International...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
64 killed in Iraq mosque attack
Baghdad, Aug 23 (IANS) At least 64 people were killed Friday when suspected Shia militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque in Iraq's eastern province of Diyala, a media report said. A bomber blew himself up and other gunmen...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
UN to hold emergency meeting on Ukraine crisis
United Nations, Aug 23 (IANS) The UN Security Council is to hold emergency consultations amid media reports of a major escalation in the Ukraine conflict. The emergency session, scheduled for Friday evening, was...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
EU deplores Russia's humanitarian convoy into Ukraine
Brussels, Aug 23 (IANS) The European Union (EU) Friday deplored as illegal Russia's decision to send humanitarian consignment into Ukrainian territory without escort of the International Committee of the Red Cross (...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
US targets key financiers of Al Qaeda, Al Nusra Front
Washington, Aug 23 (IANS) The US Friday imposed sanctions on two alleged key financiers of al-Nusra Front and Al Qaeda, authorities said. Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim Al-Sharikh and Hamid Hamad Hamid Al-Ali were...
Read more on Politics Balla