DARPA launches Cyber Attack on US Power Grids

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) has launched a cyber attack on a power utility located in Plum Island, some 1.5 miles off the shore to Long Island, New York. The objective behind the attack was to experiment on how the power utilities can bounce back in the case of ‘Blackout’ scenarios via cyber attacks launched by adversaries.

Spread in 840 acres, the power grid located at the Plum Island consists 18 substations, two utilities, two command centers, and two power generation sources- all mimicking the power utility infrastructures located in the cities.

To those who are unaware of the facilities on the island, here’s a briefing. The island has a power plant, a water treatment center, and security and fire departments. It was actually prepared to house an Animal Disease center in 1954 in response to outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in cattle.

Department of Homeland Security took the island into its wings in 2003 as the research center played a vital role in protecting the country’s livestock from infectious animal diseases. The area is now having industrial infrastructure along with some undeveloped infrastructure belonging to the government. It is almost deserted and is always isolated and wind-swept.

According to Stan Pietrowicz, a researcher at Perspecta Labs who are working on a network analysis and threat detection tools for a “black start” situation where power grids are blacked out by cyber-attacking the digital infrastructure managing it.

Mr. Stan says that under such scenarios, the power grids use cranking paths to bring back dead grids to life.

Technically speaking, a cranking path is a portion of the electric substation which is isolated and then energized to deliver electric power from the generating source to enable startup of other generating units-like how a good car battery is used to crank the car loaded with a dead battery.

DARPA held a week-long exercise dubbed as “Liberty Eclipse” to bring back blacked out grids to life after cyber attacks. The project is being funded under Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems(RADICS).

As Cyber attacks force power grids operators to start from scratch, RADICS aims to uncover such gaps in defenses under dire and black start conditions.

A post published in Wired says that the program faced its own hurdles as Plum Island’s weather played a negative role. Rainy days, high winds made it difficult for the power grid staff to recuperate with the operations. However, all was done as per the plan and was well coordinated.

DARPA is planning to launch a more sophisticated version of exercise on Plum Island in May’19. After the exercise, the chances are high that the DOE will take over the exercises and incorporate them into preparedness training for government workers and utilities.