The Cyber Wars
Learn how co-ops are strengthening cybersecurity
Initial recon. Attack vectors. Demilitarized zones. If these sound like warring terms, you’re right. There’s a war going on and your electric cooperative is on the front line. Absent are loud bombs and whizzing bullets, but the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and even your electric co-op officials will agree the stakes are high, the attacks are surprising and the enemies are stealthy and tenacious.
In the cyber world, security is ensured using multilayered strategies protected by firewalls, complex passwords, locked doors, ID badges, security cameras and other cyber and physical barriers. It’s not only your personal information at risk; it’s also the reliability of your electric service and that of thousands of rural consumers and businesses.
It’s Michael Meason’s job to thwart cyber ne’er-do-wells who threaten the reliability of Western Farmers Electric Cooperative’s 3,700-mile generation and transmission (G&T) system. Headquartered in Anadarko, Oklahoma, Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) provides power to 21 electric co-ops in Oklahoma and New Mexico, Altus Air Force Base and to public power utilities in Kansas and Texas.
Meason, manager of WFEC technical services, says cyber warfare has changed since 2015 when presumed Russian cyber soldiers launched an attack on Ukrainian power infrastructure that left 230,000 people without power. Until then, cyber assaults of that magnitude were generally considered a pretext for military operations, Meason explains, but Russia never rolled any tanks. Instead, the watershed moment revealed a new reality.
“We know now that cyber warfare for the sake of cyber attack achieves certain objectives without the use of military force. Sometimes the objective is just to show off what they can do,” he says.
What this means is a utility of any size could become a target, Meason points out. Hackers don’t discriminate. Some act alone or as part of criminal organizations that seek to steal data they can sell on the black market. Hackers who represent hostile governments generally seek to harm U.S. infrastructure and cause widespread disruption. Regardless of motive, they all share a common trait: They are relentless.
Headquartered in Vinita, Oklahoma, KAMO Power transmits power to 17 electric co-ops in northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri. Walt Kenyon, chief technology officer, says technology today allows KAMO’s security team to monitor attempts to pierce their firewalls.
“They are hammering away at our firewalls constantly, looking for an open door,” he adds.
Hackers attempt to sneak in through the unprotected IP addresses of computers and mobile devices. Once inside, they might snoop around for days or even weeks, documenting paths for later use and exploitation, Kenyon explains. Tactics such as phishing appear as emails from someone familiar to lure victims into revealing passwords, wiring money, or clicking on links that then infect their computer with malware or viruses.
“With phishing, it’s all about engineering the human and playing to our human weaknesses,” Kenyon says. “People are our biggest risk.”
To guard against the ever-present human fallibility, KAMO and WFEC promote an attitude of vigilance and awareness among employees through ongoing training and security updates, which they also share with their member cooperatives. Continual improvements in software, expanding budgets for security, and the increased flow of information among utilities and the federal government serve as further safeguards.
Both G&Ts exceed the federal cybersecurity standards required for high voltage networks. Local distribution co-ops are also taking action to protect their local cooperatives and distribution grid.
To ensure a strong defense at the local level, distribution utilities such as your electric co-op are becoming intently focused on cyber safety at all levels.
For example, Walters, Oklahoma-based Cotton Electric Cooperative recently participated in a detailed assessment of cyber capabilities with the assistance of a third party contractor. Because cybersecurity is a system-wide concern, the two-day assessment required all department heads and the CEO to participate. Karen Kaley, communications specialist and editor, sat through the process and describes it as an exhaustive series of questions that made all participants think hard and long about all aspects of their behavior.
“It was an endurance test to go through it, but it helped us create a roadmap to ensure our physical and digital security. It was a very valuable process,” Kaley says.
The process produced a lengthy report detailing the co-op’s strengths and weaknesses and offered prioritized recommendations. Among the long laundry list of items covered in the report are employee background checks, physical security of all offices, substations, warehouses, the pole yard and computer room, social media policies for employees, and policies regarding the use of mobile phones and other devices.
With three full-time employees devoted to Information Technology (IT), Cotton Electric is ahead of the cyber defense curve. Within the past three years, the co-op ramped up the physical security of their building by installing security cameras in key locations, and assigned key-fob entries on all perimeter doors. The development of a detailed cybersecurity policy produced additional safeguards such as routine cybersecurity training and awareness for employees, more robust personnel security access, and stricter guidelines regarding malware, passwords and email use.
“It’s important for our members to know that we take their security and that of our employees very seriously. From the top down we are proactively taking measures to protect their information and our infrastructure, and we’re underscoring it with policies and procedures,” Kaley says.
A breach of an electric cooperative’s operations or business network is a catastrophic event with long-reaching consequences that include lost time, data, service, and perhaps most important, the loss of trust among members. It all adds up to a big headache and an even bigger expense.
With so much at risk, electric co-ops such as Cotton Electric are nurturing a steadily intensifying culture of cyber safety and doing it with the same level of commitment they apply to electrical safety.
“We have strict guidelines to follow to ensure digital security and safety in the same way that we have strict safety policies for our linemen,” Kaley adds. “Ignoring cybersecurity is not an option.”
Mary Logan Wolf