US wants to isolate power grids with ‘retro’ technology to limit cyber-attacks

The US is very close to improving power grid security by mandating the use of “retro” (analog, manual) technologies on US power grids as a defensive measure against foreign cyber-attacks that could bring down power distribution as a result.

The idea is to use “retro” technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems, to limit the reach of a catastrophic outage.

“Specifically, it will examine ways to replace automated systems with low-tech redundancies, like manual procedures controlled by human operators,” said US Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who introduced the bill on the Senate floor in 2016.

“This approach seeks to thwart even the most sophisticated cyber-adversaries who, if they are intent on accessing the grid, would have to actually physically touch the equipment, thereby making cyber-attacks much more difficult,” they said in a press release last week, after the bill, named the Securing Energy Infrastructure Act (SEIA), passed the Senate floor.

The bill now needs approval from the US House of Representatives, where SEIA had been introduced as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.

If approved, the SEIA bill would establish a two-year pilot program with the National Laboratories to study power grid operators and identify new vulnerabilities, but also develop new analog devices that could be used to isolate the most critical systems of covered entities from cyber-attacks; and establish a working group to test the newly developed analog devices.

Senators King and Risch said SEIA was inspired and set in motion by the 2015 cyber-attack on Ukraine’s power grid, where suspected Russian hackers crashed a portion of the country’s power grid and led to more than 225,000 Ukrainians going without power on Christmas Eve.