(For other news from Reuters Cybersecurity Summit, click on www.reuters.com/summit/Cyber13)
By Alina Selyukh and Jim Finkle
WASHINGTON May 13 Downplaying warnings about
the potential for hackers to sabotage U.S. power plants at the
click of a mouse, the head of the North American electricity
standards group said on Monday he is more concerned about
physical rather than cyber threats.
"It takes a small number of crews with explosives and you've
created not only an outage over an area or a city, but smoke and
fire and flash-type stuff," Gerry Cauley, chief executive of the
North American Electric Reliability Corp (NERC), told the
Reuters Cybersecurity Summit.
"It's much more complicated, it's much more technically
difficult" to destroy equipment virtually, he said.
NERC is a non-profit agency whose mission is to oversee and
ensure the reliability of the bulk power system in the United
States, Canada and parts of Mexico. It brings together members
of the industry, including municipalities, utilities, power
producers and transmission operators.
The U.S. public became more aware of cyber threats against
critical infrastructure after President Barack Obama said at the
State of the Union address in February that enemies are "seeking
the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial
institutions, and our air traffic control systems."
Cauley said that while hackers have used computer viruses to
spy on electric plants and steal documents, NERC members have
yet to find malicious software in their networks that is capable
of causing physical damage to a plant.
"You hear a lot of that in this city (Washington), to be
frank, that we're the bullseye," he told the summit held at
Reuters' Washington offices. "But I don't think we're the
Cauley, a lead investigator of the wide-ranging U.S.
Northeast blackout in 2003, pointed to an incident in San Jose,
California, on April 16 as an example of physical threats.
In that case, an unknown person or persons fired a
high-powered rifle at electric transformers owned by PG&E Corp's
Pacific Gas and Electric utility, prompting requests for
residents to conserve power. Vandals also cut
nearby underground fiber optic cables, disrupting telephone
service, in an apparently related incident.
"We don't do ourselves a favor if we only concentrate on
cyber. Physical security is a concern for us as well," Cauley
About 20 percent of NERC's budget goes to security, of which
80 percent is spent on cyber, he said. But he called the
attempts to virtually hack into the power systems "not that
"Anyone who is smart enough to do those kinds of things has
better things to do than shut the lights out," Cauley said.
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(Editing by Ros Krasny and Philip Barbara)