Power grid makes moves to bolster cybersecurity

Cybersecurity standards expected to be adopted within weeks by the North American Electric Reliability Council are likely to become mandatory for power utilities across the country under the huge energy bill signed by President Bush signed last week.

The government-led effort is part of a strategy to protect the nation's critical infrastructures.

The reliability council, an organization of electric power companies, recently released its third draft of its voluntary cybersecurity guidelines to guard against hackers, viruses and other computer attacks against the nation's power grids. The rules are expected to be adopted by the organization by Nov. 1, with implementation from 2006 through 2009, according to a fact sheet on the NERC's website. A temporary cyberstandard has been in effect since 2003.

Meanwhile, under the energy bill the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would certify an "Electric Reliability Organization" that would draft mandatory standards, including cybersecurity rules, for electric power companies. The goal is to protect the nation's power grids and control systems from catastrophic disruptions due to weather, natural disasters or terrorist attacks, including cybersecurity attacks. The federal agency would have the authority to penalize utilities for violations.

The council, which is run by power company owners and operators, expects to apply and win the federal government designation as the nation's electric reliability organization, said spokeswoman Ellen Vancko. That would most likely make mandatory the council's standards and rules, including its cybersecurity standard, following federal rulemaking procedures, she said.

The reliability council has been designated by the Energy Department as coordinator of infrastructure protection for the electric power sector; the council works with the Homeland Security Department as well.

The risk to the nation's electric power grids from terrorist and cybersecurity attacks has become a major concern since Sept. 11, 2001, and the East Coast blackouts of August 2003. The concern is particularly strong for cyberthreats to control systems for power grids, pipelines, water systems, dams, refineries and other critical infrastructure.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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