Protecting the grid

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duane highley

Duane Highley, president and chief executive officer Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc.

Here’s some bad news: today, electric utilities are on the front lines of international cyberwarfare, with enemies bringing the terrorist threat right to our front door.

The good news? Your electric cooperative has been building its defenses for years to prepare for the battle.

The electric cooperatives in Arkansas experience thousands of cyberattacks every day. Many of these attacks originate from nation-states that have sworn to bring our grid down. Their goal? Interrupt your electric service and steal your personal information.

Electric cooperatives have been preparing for years to meet the growing cyber challenge. With direct access to our local, state and federal law enforcement officials we share information on emerging threats. We participate in classified briefings with officials from the White House, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation and others. Under the oversight of the Department of Energy, utilities from across the nation have partnered with these government agencies to develop an information sharing and analysis center that monitors electronic traffic into and out of our most sensitive control systems, watching for signs of compromise. Any unusual activity triggers a response which is instantly shared with computers across the country, machine to machine.

Electric utilities, including cooperatives, also are subject to an exhaustive list of mandatory and enforceable cybersecurity regulations, as promulgated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, with regular audits to ensure we are in compliance and heavy fines if we are not. Participation in this program is not optional. Your electric cooperative recently completed its implementation of the fifth successive revision of these standards. No other critical sector in this country is subject to such exhaustive regulations, all designed to keep the grid secure.

In addition to partnering with the federal government in information sharing, advanced electronic interception tools, and the development of mandatory standards, we also regularly conduct nationwide tabletop threat exercises. In the last such exercise, held last fall, 4,400 utility personnel participated. Over 300 utilities were involved from all across the country, responding to a simulated cyber and physical attack. In Arkansas, we had full cooperation with our state police and emergency management agencies.

These exercises allow us to practice the coordination that would be necessary to allow for the fastest recovery from any possible incident, from natural disasters such as earthquakes, ice storms, tornadoes and floods to manmade intentional attacks.

You may read sensational doomsday news reports that suggest that we have an unprepared, uncoordinated utility sector. These stories are untrue, designed to sensationalize the threat and inspire panic. While we can’t promise that no attack will ever be successful (after all, to keep the grid secure we have to repel every attack, while the bad guys only need to get it right once), we can promise you that we take these threats seriously. We are working in partnership with federal, state and local governments, deploying the very best technology and techniques to thwart every attempt. In today’s world, cybersecurity has become a critical part of our job, working for you every day to keep your power reliable and affordable, no matter what.

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