Physical attacks on the US power grid increased last year by 71% from 2021 and exceeded 2020 figures by 20%. The industry’s leading clearinghouse predicts that the number of serious incidents will continue to rise this year.
CBS News has obtained a confidential analysis of physical attacks on the U.S. power grid written by the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), which is a data center documenting threats to the power system and a division of North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).
According to the analysis, the E-ISAC “assesses with medium confidence that the recent increase in serious physical security incidents is expected to continue into 2023 based on the number and nature of recent attacks combined with the overall security environment. current heightened threat”.
A slight increase in ballistic damage, intrusions (tampering) and vandalism incidents has led to the increase in “network impacting” incidents since 2021, according to the analysis.
“The lower increase of 20% (2020 to 2022) is due to the high number of serious incidents that occurred in 2020 which can be attributed to the outbreak of COVID, increased social tensions and deteriorating economic conditions “, revealed the study.
An “unusual” number of “repeated and clustered attacks” on infrastructure in the Southeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest occurred in 2022 involving “individual sites repeatedly targeted or multiple sites targeted close to each other”.
One such attack occurred last December, with the deliberate shooting down of electrical substations in Moore County, North Carolina, leaving 45,000 people in the dark for several days.
E-ISAC analysis is the most comprehensive and includes mandatory reporting of incidents to federal agencies or NERC, as well as voluntary disclosures made confidentially.
And while the E-ISAC determined that the “overall share of physical security incidents” has increased by 11% since 2021 and 25% since 2020, analysts believe that the surge in incidents affecting the network “is due to a real increase in the risk of the electrical industry. environment and is not just the result of fluctuations in information sharing patterns by utilities. »
Between 2020 and 2022, E-ISAC monitored 4,493 incidents: 502 received by mandatory reporting and 3,991 by voluntary means.
The vast majority – 97% – of incidents “resulted in no service interruption”. But the remaining 3% of incidents resulted in “varying levels of network impact”. Highlights of this study were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s important to note that new fencing, cameras, or better lighting are not going to prevent attacks. They will continue to happen,” said Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security. (DHS). “That’s why we need to invest in resilience, adding redundancy and removing single points of failure. Some attacks on critical infrastructure should be legally treated as domestic terrorism.”
Harrell said he suspects groups or individuals plotting these incidents may be “hiding” in the short term due to heightened law enforcement attention recently, but ultimately foresees an escalation in attacks in 2023.
According to an industry analysis obtained by CBS News, incidents affecting power grids can occur outside the perimeter with suspects “throwing objects at electrified equipment and components to cause disabling” and “ballistic attacks aimed at disabling equipment or causing fires by targeting a specific area of a specific component.” Inside the perimeter, intrusions can occur in control houses to damage or destroy equipment, put the fire or tamper with switches.
Groups have different motivations for attacking network assets. Economic crimes – theft of copper, tools and catalytic converters – remain a challenge for the industry.
But while regulators have worried about targeting substations for years, industry analysts are increasingly concerned that racially motivated violent extremists, lone wolves and radical environmentalists pose a high threat, perhaps linked to information more readily available online on specific tactics, techniques and procedures. .
In January, two people were charged over Christmas Day attacks on substations in Pierce County, Washington, affecting thousands of customers.
“We’ve seen attacks on the power grid for a number of years, and some of those attacks are just people shooting up substations across the country for purely criminal reasons,” said Kenneth Wainstein, Undersecretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department. of Homeland Security, told CBS News last week in a exclusive interview. “But some of these shootings are also perpetrated by domestic violent extremists” who are trying to bring about a breakdown in society.
This month, two people – including a known neo-Nazi – were indicted by a federal grand jury after allegedly plotting to attack five electrical substations in Maryland and Pennsylvania to “devastate” the city of Baltimore.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Russell are said to have planned the online offensive. According to court documents, Clendaniel “described how there was a ‘circle’ around Baltimore and if they hit any number of them on the same day, they would ‘completely destroy this whole city’.”
“The vision, in short, is that they want to take out the energy grid because if they take out the energy grid, they believe society will then collapse,” Wainstein said. “And out of the collapse, (they say), will arise a white nationalist government to replace the current government. And we’ve seen this narrative online among these white nationalist groups.”
White supremacist conspiracies targeting the grid have “significantly increased in frequency,” according to a study published in September by The Program on Extremism at George Washington University. From 2016 to 2022, thirteen people linked to white supremacist movements have been indicted in federal courts for plotting attacks on electrical infrastructure, including 11 defendants charged after 2020.