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Protecting the Power Grid: When Surveillance Becomes Security

by Chet Geschickter  |  February 6, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

Grid cyber security is a hot issue inside the utility industry. However, yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s report on an attack on the Metcalf power station in San Jose, CA on April 16, 2013 highlighted physical security vulnerabilities. The attack was a simple brute force physical assault on power grid infrastructure which Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission described as “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” [in the U.S.] (source: ibid WSJ, February 4, 2014). The assailants cut phone lines in an underground vault then began shooting at transformers with weapons that used shell casings similar to an AK-47. According to the account, cameras were aimed inside the substation perimeter and therefore did not capture images of the assailants. No arrests have been made. Grid operators avoided a blackout by calling on power plants to ramp up generation and by rerouting power around the site.

This incident highlights the physical vulnerability of power grids. In the U.S. there are over 164,000 miles of transmission lines and thousands of substations (see the excellent Transmission 101 overview from NARUC for a detailed picture). Clearly, there is no way to physically secure all this infrastructure. Selective measures must be taken to harden key assets and choke points.

Although it is not possible to pre-empt all forms of physical attack anywhere on the system, it is possible to deploy enhanced monitoring technologies to more rapidly detect attacks to kick off emergency procedures, and surveillance technologies to gather forensic evidence that can assist in the ultimate capture and persecution of perpetrators. Gartner analyst Jeff Vining has written some excellent recent research notes on video surveillance including a note on video surveillance as a managed service and a recent survey on video surveillance prirorities in government. Utilities may also consider gun-shot surveillance systems.

If we operate on the premise that there are a limited number of people with intentions to attack physical infrastructure, then our best prevention strategy may be to catch assailants before their next attack. So, in a sense, surveillance becomes security – but in a forward looking sense.    


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Category: smart-grid  

Tags: cybersecurity  smartgrid  surveillance  utility  

Chet Geschickter
Research Director
2 years at Gartner
22 years IT Industry

Chet Geschickter specializes in the customer life cycle process and renewable energy within the Energy and Utilities industry research team.. Read Full Bio

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