Heinrich Backs Legislation To Protect U.S. Electric Grid From Cyberattacks

"Cybersecurity is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation."

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) joined U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to introduce The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act of 2016, a bill to protect critical U.S. energy infrastructure from potentially catastrophic cyberattacks. The legislation would examine solutions to defend the U.S. energy grid by replacing key devices like computer-connected operating systems that are vulnerable to cyberattacks with analog and human-operated systems -- a "retro" approach that has shown promise as a safeguard against cyberattacks.

"Cybersecurity is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation. The future of warfare is moving further away from the battlefield and closer to the devices and the networks everyday citizens depend on," said Sen. Heinrich. "Protecting our nation from malicious cyber actors requires a comprehensive approach, and keeping our energy infrastructure secure is central to that. I am especially proud that this legislation would rely on the expertise of New Mexico's National Labs in providing technology solutions and developing a national strategy to isolate the energy grid from cyberattacks."
Top officials within the Intelligence Community have testified that U.S. critical infrastructure are enticing targets to malicious actors. Those officials have also warned that, without action, the U.S. remains vulnerable to cyberattacks that could result in catastrophic damage to public health and safety, economic security, and national security.

The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act of 2016 would examine ways to replace automated systems with manual procedures controlled by human operators to remove vulnerabilities that could allow cyber-criminals to access the grid through holes in digital software systems. 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 cyberattacks much more difficult.

The potential for this approach was evident in the December 2015 cyberattack on Ukraine's power grid during which sophisticated cyberattack techniques were used to plunge more than 225,000 people into darkness. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the cyberattack was coordinated to target the Ukrainian power grid's industrial control systems, which act as the intermediary between computers and the switches that distribute electricity. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid. The legislation seeks to build on this concept by studying ways to strategically use "retro" technology to isolate the grid's most important control systems.

More specifically, the legislation would:

  • Establish a two-year pilot program within the National Laboratories to study covered entities and identify new classes of security vulnerabilities, and research and test technology -- like analog devices -- that could be used to isolate the most critical systems of covered entities from cyberattacks.
  • Require the establishment of a working group to evaluate the technology solutions proposed by the National Laboratories and to develop a national cyber-informed strategy to isolate the energy grid from attacks. Members of the working group would include federal government agencies, the energy industry, a state or regional energy agency, the National Laboratories, and other groups with relevant experience.
  • The Secretary of Energy is required to submit a report to Congress describing the results of the program, assessing the feasibility of the techniques considered, and outlining the results of the working groups' evaluation.
  • Define "covered entities" under the bill as segments of the energy sector that have already been designated as entities where a cybersecurity incident could result in catastrophic regional or national effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.

To read the text of the legislation, click here.