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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A smarter, more connected electrical grid is more efficient and more resilient against natural threats — but more vulnerable against cyberattacks.

Why it matters: As electricity shifts to more distributed and intermittent renewable sources, updating the grid has become a necessity. But unless cyber defense keeps pace, digitizing the grid will also open up new points of approach for cyber threats.

By the numbers: Over the next two years, 2.5 billion industrial devices are set to be connected to the energy industry's critical infrastructure, a sign that the 20th century U.S. electrical grid is finally entering the 21st century.

  • But as the grid is connected to the internet, it will be exposed to the same kind of cyberattacks that have become a regular part of online life. The difference is that a cyberattack on something as vital as electricity service would have enormous real-world implications.
  • "The attack surface is increasing," says Leo Simonovich, global head of industrial cyber and digital security at Siemens Energy. "At the same time, the cost of attacks have gone down and are being deployed by sophisticated actors like nation-states."

Flashback: In March 2019, the U.S. power grid was hit for the first time by a cyberattack that affected several Western states, though there was no disruption to service.

How it works: Simonovich says that "you can't protect what you can't see," so the first step to defending the grid against cyberattacks is improving visibility into operations.

  • The company last week launched an AI-based Managed Detection and Response system that can sift through billions of data points to determine "what is not normal and understand the context" of a possible attack, he says.
  • Context is vital — unlike online systems, real-world infrastructure like the grid can't be easily turned on and off every time there's a potential cyberattack.
  • Siemens Energy is working with utilities including the New York Power Authority to implement its defense system.

What to watch: Whether the prolonged period of remote work caused by the pandemic leads to an increase in cyberattacks on the grid, as it already has with wider ransomware attacks.

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
Dec 18, 2020 - Technology

Cyberhack looks like act of war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Trump administration official tells Axios that the cyberattack on the U.S. government and corporate America, apparently by Russia, is looking worse by the day — and secrets may still be being stolen in ways not yet discovered.

The big picture: "We still don't know the bottom of the well," the official said. Stunningly, the breach goes back to at least March, and continued all through the election. The U.S. government didn't sound the alarm until this Sunday. Damage assessment could take months.

Biden promises retaliation for cyberattack on government agencies

Joe Biden speaking in Atlanta on Dec. 15. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President-elect Biden on Thursday said that a suspected Russian cyberattack on multiple government agencies and U.S. companies "is a matter of great concern" and promised to impose "substantial costs" to those responsible for the attack.

Driving the news: Biden's statement came just hours after the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency alerted that evidence suggested that additional malware was used in what it described as “a grave risk to the Federal Government and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments as well as critical infrastructure entities and other private sector organizations.”

Romney: White House should "say something aggressive" on Russian cyberattack

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called on the White House to “aggressively” condemn a suspected Russian cyberattack in an interview with SiriusXM on Thursday evening.

Why it matters: Since news broke that hackers tied to Russia penetrated U.S. government networks and companies, public officials including President-elect Biden have come forward with rebukes. President Trump has been largely silent, though the White House has held emergency meetings with officials across agencies to address the breach, per Bloomberg.

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