Obama warns of power grid's lagging cyber defenses

Obama warns of power grid's lagging cyber defenses
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The U.S. isn't spending enough to defend its power grid from cyberattacks, President Obama warned on Thursday as he declared November Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month.

The move is part of the administration’s efforts to promote better funding for the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, power grids and energy systems.

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“By some estimates, we are currently underinvesting in our infrastructure by hundreds of billions of dollars each year,”  Obama said in his proclamation. “Not only is it a threat to our national security, but failing to maintain and strengthen our infrastructure also jeopardizes our economic growth and closes doors of opportunity for all our citizens.”

Lagging investments in power grids and energy systems, especially, have been increasingly singled out as a looming danger by the White House, presidential candidates, lawmakers and private sector security experts.

The inattention has left these networks exposed to potentially catastrophic cyberattacks that could cause massive blackouts and leave people with basic services or resources, they all warn.

National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers told lawmakers last fall that China and “one or two” other countries are capable of such a digital assault. Researchers suspect Iran is also in that camp.

The administration has taken steps to try and prevent such a grave outcome.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently created a new committee specifically dedicated to boosting digital defenses for utilities. The committee will assess how well the agency’s “lifeline sectors” are prepared to meet threats and recover from a “significant cyber event.”

Hackers have already started pillorying the Department of Energy, which oversees the nation’s power grid. The agency has been under a constant barrage of cyberattacks in recent years. According to federal documents, digital intruders cracked the agency’s computer system over 150 times between 2010 and 2014.

The issue has gotten some surprising attention on the 2016 campaign trail, where former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: 'Too many politicians are being subject to criminal prosecution' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE called for power grid updates to bolster cybersecurity.

“Our electrical grid needs upgrading to harness new technology that reduces energy costs and increases consumer choice, and to address the growing threat of cyberattack,” Clinton said.

The Democratic presidential front-runner even revealed a sweeping energy infrastructure policy statement that was heavily focused on cybersecurity. Her plan would create a new presidential team to coordinate threat assessment and response efforts between federal agencies and the power industry.

Capitol Hill has also started to tackle the problem with hearings and legislative proposals.

Democrats have accused Republicans of short-changing the U.S. electrical grid millions of dollars needed to protect it from cyberattacks, and Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeJackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' Most oppose cash reparations for slavery: poll Poll: Most Americans oppose reparations MORE (D-Texas) earlier this month called for action on a bill to boost the electric system’s digital defenses in an effort to ward off a terrorist cyberattacks. 

Days later, two House subcommittee’s jointly held a hearing on the topic, where Rep. Suzanne BonamiciSuzanne Marie BonamiciOvernight Energy: Democrats call for Ross to resign over report he threatened NOAA officials | Commerce denies report | Documents detail plan to decentralize BLM | Lawmakers demand answers on bee-killing pesticide Oregon Democrats push EPA to justify use of pesticide 'highly toxic' to bees House lawmakers introduce bill to help those struggling with student debt MORE (D-Ore.) cautioned that a cyberattack on the power grid “could halt our daily lives, threaten our economic security.”

Obama on Thursday encouraged people to not take this security for granted.

“We have more power at our fingertips than ever before to communicate, collaborate, and make transactions each day across the world we share,” he said. “This month, let us remind ourselves of the value of our infrastructure, while recognizing the challenges of protecting it.”