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The specter of cyber attacks on our nation’s critical infrastructure brings to mind Hollywood depictions like War Games or Mr. Robot. But how dangerous are cyber attacks?

Currently, cyber attacks are one of many risks electric utilities have to manage, but the threat to sensitive data and financial accounts is larger than it is to the physical grid itself. Every year, cybercrime costs the U.S. billions of dollars. For electric cooperatives, the average cyber insurance claim costs $733,000 according to Bill West, vice president of underwriting at Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange.

While there are examples of cyber attacks on utility systems, they’re rare. A December 2015 cyber attack on distribution control systems in Ukraine led to an outage that affected 225,000 customers. In that case, electricity was restored within 3 to 6 hours by manually operating switches. Some computer firmware was permanently damaged, but there was no damage to generation equipment.

To protect against malicious hackers, electric cooperatives are implementing defensive strategies including penetration testing, staff training, application whitelisting and investing in innovative research and development.

Penetration testing involves paying a third party to hack your network from the outside. Penetration testers provide a report of the exploits they used to show a utility the areas it needs to improve. The goal is to find weaknesses that are visible to attackers and to patch them before malicious hackers discover them.  

Electric co-ops are also investing in staff training to teach employees how to recognize threats. According to Damon Drake, cyber security engineer at Seminole Electric Cooperative, “Technology is only about 10 percent of the protection, because it’s only as good as the people behind it.” Often hackers will target people rather than systems through phishing – e-mails designed to make you click a link – or social engineering, which manipulates people into clicking a link, visiting a specific web page or sharing confidential information.

Another emerging strategy is application whitelisting. This is best understood as the reverse of blacklisting, which is how many spam filters and anti-virus programs maintain a list of all malicious programs and block them when they appear. In whitelisting, only programs on an approved list are allowed to run.

Lastly, electric co-ops are investing in innovative research. The U.S. Department of Energy is providing support in a $15 million, 3-year partnership with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the American Public Power Association. NRECA will use its $7.5 million share to make cutting-edge cyber security expertise and technology more accessible to the co-op community.   

Protect your personal information online

While electric co-ops are taking steps to protect their network, there are several steps you can take to avoid becoming a cybercrime statistic. Above all, exercise good judgment!

  • Don’t give out secure or confidential information to anyone you don’t know – or whose identity you can’t verify – online or on the phone.
  • Keep your computer software up to date. 
  • Think before clicking any links or opening attachments in an e-mail. Many viruses can “spoof” the return address, making it look like the message came from someone you know. If you can, check with the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it’s legitimate before opening any attachments. If an e-mail link or attachment seems suspicious, don’t open it.
  • Use strong passwords or passphrases with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, characters – and don’t reuse the same password for multiple sites. If a site is compromised, that password is compromised, and any other sites that use that same password are vulnerable as well. Consider investing in a password manager that keeps track of your passwords or automatically generates a new password every time you need one.
  • Be careful using any public Wi-Fi network, because it’s easy for someone sitting near you to monitor your online activities.  Logging into your bank account or other sensitive sites from an open Wi-Fi network can compromise your security.
  • Find more ways to protect yourself against cyber attacks on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at  

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