Can open-source software prevent the next big blackout?

Friday, 5 September 2003, 10:55 AM EST

North America's power grid, creaking under loads it was never designed to handle, may be facing an even grimmer future thanks to security flaws in aging control systems that are increasingly interconnected with Microsoft-based enterprise systems. The situation is so bad, experts say, that bored script kiddies could soon be knocking out power stations as easily as they concoct viruses from toolkits available on the Web.

Brian Ahern, CEO of control system security firm Verano, says that three issues have created a security nightmare for the power grid: underinvestment in electric power distribution systems that include control software; the interconnection of power industry business systems with legacy control systems; and a trend among vendors to build control-system technology on insecure platforms such as Microsoft’s.

Underinvestment means that most utilities rely on aged systems that were never designed for the loads or security issues they face today. Legacy systems, for example, may have been designed to run on private, 10-megabit networks, and as such, lack even basic security features such as firewalls.

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