AmerenCILCO: Cyber threats increasing

DeWayne Bartels

Is the threat of a cyber attack on electrical or water systems in the Peoria area growing?

The answer appears to be — yes.

McAfee Inc., on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, revealed the threat of cyber attack on critical infrastructure systems is growing.

This is an issue TimesNewspapers addressed in November with AmerenCILCO spokesman Neal Johnson.

In November, Johnson said, “Cyber security is a 24/7 continuous job for us. Hacking is a constant threat. Our information techs monitor for it every day.” 

The threat, according to the McAffe report, is growing. The report draws its conclusions from a survey of 600 IT security executives worldwide. The report said 54 percent of those surveyed have been subjected to large-scale attacks or infiltration by organized crime, terrorists or other nations.

“The average estimated cost of downtime associated with a major incident is $6.3 million per day,” the report said. 

The report “In the Crossfire: Critical Infrastructure in the Age of Cyberwar,” also said the risk of cyberattack is rising. Thirty-seven percent of the IT executives surveyed said the vulnerability of their sector had increased over the past 12 months, and two-fifths expect a major security incident in their sector within the next year.

“Many of the world’s critical infrastructures were built for reliability and availability, not for security,” the report said.

President Obama, in a speech last May, brought this threat to wide attention.

“It’s the great irony of our Information Age — the very technologies that empower us to create and to build also empower those who would disrupt and destroy. And this paradox — seen and unseen — is something that we experience every day,” Obama said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, on Sept. 11, 2008, while testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality about cyber security vulnerabilities in the nation’s electric grid, said, “In the interest of national security, a statutory mechanism is necessary to protect the grid against cyber security threats.

“I believe America is disturbingly vulnerable to a cyber attack against the electric grid that could cause significant consequences to our nation’s critical infrastructure. Virtually every expert that I’ve discussed these matters with across government and throughout the private sector and everyone shares this assessment.”

There was a limit to what Johnson could say about cyber security at AmerenCILCO.

He was limited by concerns about revealing security protocols, and he was limited by the fact that he is not privy to a good deal of security information.

Johnson said he is not aware of any portion of the electric grid maintained by Ameren being probed by hackers.

But, he also said even if he was aware, he would not admit how or where because it could possibly expose a vulnerability in the system.

Johnson said he would not be surprised if the federal government — in one form or another — worked with Ameren on cyber security issues.

“Eyes are on us all the time. They have to be,” Johnson said. “It’s a threat that’s not going to diminish.”

Johnson said the fact a foreign terrorist was uncovered right here in Peoria makes it clear that no utility or other business can downplay the prospect of domestic or foreign terrorists pinpointing a target in Peoria.

“Everybody’s a target. We’re strong in terms of security, but we’re not Superman,” Johnson said.

“It can happen anywhere. The bottom line is, we have to be prepared.”

In the end, though, Johnson said, there are no guarantees.

“Nobody is 100 percent protected,” he said. “We do the best we can with the tools we have.”