Hundreds participate in electric grid cyberattack simulation amid increasing threats

More than 700 individuals associated with the bulk power grid and other related critical infrastructure participated in a simulation this week designed to test resilience against a major physical and cyberattack. 

The simulation comes amid a series of serious cyberattacks that have taken place in the past year, and amid warnings by officials that attacks against critical infrastructure are increasing. 

The GridEx simulation, held every two years, is hosted by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) Electric Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), and is the largest grid security exercise in North America. 

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This year was the sixth GridEx simulation, and took place virtually over two days due to COVID-19 concerns. The simulation concluded Thursday.

The event included participation from utilities of all sizes, along with organizations in interconnected sectors like telecommunications, financial services and natural gas. 

Canadian organizations and officials from U.S. agencies including the Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security also took part, with the officials set to convene a roundtable discussion Thursday to discuss results and lessons learned. A report on the exercise will be released in March. 

“It brings all the players in the ecosystem together, what I would call the community response, to practice and drill, get to know each other, and grease those critical communications skids that would be required in an actual emergency, and it makes us all stronger together,” NERC President and CEO Jim Robb told reporters following the simulation.

“Electricity is woven into the fabric of our society,” Robb stressed. “Working together, we strengthen the reliability and security fabric of the industry by reducing risks to the North American grid. Our adversaries continue to look for ways to exploit our interconnected system, we will continue to be vigilant, and by working together in exercises like this, we can make sure they’re not successful.”

The simulation took place in the wake of some of the most difficult years in the cybersecurity space, which have seen threats against every sector increase. Society has also become more reliant on less secure online systems while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Manny Cancel, senior vice president at NERC and CEO of the E-ISAC, noted that the threat landscape “has evolved and become very complex,” and that there had been a “ninefold increase in ransomware reports.”

“At the E-ISAC we have seen a marked increase in cyber and physical security threats, particularly over the last year,” Cancel told reporters. “We have experienced supply chain threats, critical software vulnerabilities, [and] we have also witnessed a significant spike in ransomware.” 

These comments echoed those previously made by Cancel in April during a press briefing, when he told reporters that there had been an “unprecedented” increase in cyber threats during the course of the pandemic. 

Ransomware attacks against critical infrastructure have become a major national security issue in the United States in recent months, following crippling attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS USA. 

The SolarWinds hack, which allowed Russian government-linked hackers to compromise nine federal government agencies for much of 2020, also impacted around 100 private sector groups. Cancel noted in April that many of these were in the electricity sector.

Puesh Kumar, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response, pointed to the increasing cyberthreats Thursday as underlining the need for greater security collaboration.

“It really is time to come together to tackle these challenges and address them through thoughtful conversations, thoughtful policies, thoughtful development of tools and technologies to really advance how we ensure that we have resilient energy infrastructure,” Kumar told reporters. 

Tom Fanning, the president and CEO of electricity group Southern Company, stressed the importance of GridEx in order to avoid catastrophe. 

“What we're trying to do with GridEx, we will figure out ways not just to respond to what has happened, but rather to skate to where the puck will be, and prevent America from that awful day where the existential threat becomes a reality,” Fanning told reporters.