Computer-heavy electrical grid is vulnerable to attack

Friday, 12 September 2003, 11:44 AM EST

Since last month's Northeast blackout, utilities have accelerated plans to automate the electric grid, replacing aging monitoring systems with digital switches and other high-tech gear.

But those very improvements are making the electricity supply vulnerable to a different kind of peril: computer viruses and hackers who could black out substations, cities, or entire states.

Researchers working for the U.S., Canadian, and British governments have already sniffed out "back doors" in the digital relays and control-room technology that increasingly direct electricity flow in North America.

With a few focused keystrokes, they say, they could shut the computer gear down--or change settings in ways that might trigger cascading blackouts.

"I know enough about where the holes are," said Eric Byres, a cybersecurity researcher for critical infrastructure at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver. "My team and I could shut down the grid. Not the whole North American grid, but a state, sure."

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