Are Russian hackers a threat to Valley power companies?

Posted at 6:53 PM, Mar 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-19 17:49:58-04

A bulletin from the FBI and Homeland Security Department this week finally named Russian government hackers as the source of a series of cyber attacks on US power companies.

The Valley's biggest electric providers, APS and SRP, are not saying whether they were breached, and even though the hackers have been trying since 2016, no company actually saw a power disruption.

"Obviously everyone's worried about electricity going off; everybody's worried about explosion," said Kevin Knierim, a former FBI agent, "but I would say that there is not a lack of resources to protect those sorts of infrastructure."

Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah and other nuclear plants may be most safe from remote tampering. Energy industry insiders say the reactors' controls are not hooked up to the internet.

"If you ever been in a nuclear control room, they tend to be 1960s 1970s era vintage," said Edison Electric Institute's Scott Aaronson. "I often tell people the best way to avoid a cyber attack is not to have cyber infrastructure."

The power grid itself is move vulnerable. The biggest concern in Arizona would be a major power outage on a 115 degree day. Computers would go dark; air conditioning would go out; traffic lights would go down.

"They [Russian hackers] would love to have a kind of chaos," said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor Jon Haass, an expert in cybersecurity. 

Utilities do have backup plans. If there's an outage due to attack or natural disaster, the companies have alternate ways to switch it back on.

Cybersecurity experts say there are added security features to better prevent breaches. Requiring a chip card or fingerprint login could keep someone from cloning employees' identities from overseas. New technology costs could be passed to customers.

"We should be very happy to pay for additional cybersecurity as part of our payment," Haass said. "It would be a minor amount of money for each one of us to feel safer at night."