How cybersecure is your electrical distribution network?

The energy sector is a top target for cyber attacks

Power grids are an attractive target for cyber attacks. In fact, the energy sector has become the leading victim of cyberattacks around the world. In the UK, for example, 24% of all cyberattacks were directed at the energy industry and research suggests more than half of UK’s utilities suffered a cyberattack in 2020.  That’s why it’s no surprise that a recent survey found that 40% of energy and utilities executives rank cyberattacks as their biggest risk.

The grid is an enormous potential target both in terms of the severe damage an attack can cause and because of the myriad ways to attack it. Electrical distribution systems are considered critical infrastructure that is essential for society and the economy to function. Any attack could paralyze the affected region and beyond, for example by causing a blackout.

In addition, electrical distribution networks are more interconnected than ever thanks to the growth in connected devices. However, every system and device adds another potential attack surface. In addition, the grid has become more complex, dynamic, automated, and geographically dispersed, which has created more vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.

It’s clear from previous attacks on utilities that attackers are constantly seeking new ways to gain entry and have been successful around the world. This includes a successful cyber intrusion on ENTSO’s office network, Australia’s CS Energy was the victim of a ransomware attack on its network, attacks in Mumbai affected regional dispatch centers and led to widespread power outages, and an outage at a small U.S. utility managed to take down 90 percent of the utility’s internal system and was responsible for the loss of 25 years of historical data.

But while digitalizing comes with cyber risk, it has also made power networks stronger, safer, and more sustainable

While it might be tempting to put digitization efforts on hold as a way to minimize cyber risks, that’s a bad idea because modernizing the grid has given electrical distribution networks huge opportunities. For example, digital transformation has increased grids’ resiliency, enabled remote monitoring, improved load balancing, increased the use of DER, supported prosumers, and prepared for more electrification, which is a heavily substantial part of decarbonization efforts.

You can keep your power distribution network more cybersecure with this five-step approach

To take advantage of smart grid opportunities while still protecting your assets, electrical distribution networks must prioritize cybersecurity and be proactive, rather than reactive, in their defenses. All technology products, equipment, and systems – from the sensor level to the application — need to be designed and produced with security in mind. Most older embedded devices and power systems applications were not designed with security monitoring in mind. While it’s possible to shore up cybersecurity on existing equipment, networks are safer when they use products and equipment that is cybersecure by design under IEC 62443.

Any cyber risk mitigation approach must define and deploy a strong, well-rounded cybersecurity strategy will support the business as a whole. That’s because cyber security involves more than just devices, but also the security culture and employees’ cyber skills. For example, while hackers can attack infrastructure directly, such as exploiting security weakness in technology, they can also cause damage through employees, such as phishing attempts that lead to employees downloading malware.  

Following this five-step approach can help you create and maintain cybersecure systems:

  1. Assess: Perform a comprehensive risk analysis and gap analysis to identify vulnerabilities.
  2. Design: Design a secure architecture and a cybersecurity policy that sets out a formal set of rules. For example, informing employees and other authorized users of how they must protect technology and information assets and identifying a list of assets that must be protected and the threats to those assets.
  3. Implement: Implement security control solutions (hardware and software) and select technologies that adhere to security standards. For example, use solutions that are secure by design can reduce risks when securing system components.
  4. Monitor: Take a proactive approach to monitoring network and host security devices.
  5. Maintain: Maintain your security program. Cybersecurity strategies aren’t over just by putting a system in place. Electrical distribution networks must also stay continuously updated and aware of known vulnerabilities and existing patches. They must also have a comprehensive understanding of technology and obsolescence schedules as well as mandate that certain events, such as detected threats, trigger security assessments.

And because it bears repeating, always keep people in mind. Effective training for key staff delivered by trusted cybersecurity experts is essential for minimizing cyber risk.

Read our use-case illustration to learn how cybersecurity solutions can be implemented

Download our use case to learn more about how you can improve your electrical distribution network’s cybersecurity.

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