Risk of cyber attacks on power networks

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Cyber attacks on London electricity networks are likely to disrupt more than 1.5 million people and could cost £111m daily, even for a relatively small attack… 

Critical national infrastructure such as smart electricity networks are susceptible to malicious cyber attacks that could cause substantial power outages and cascading failure affecting multiple business, health and education organisations as well domestic supply, says Dr Edward Oughton from the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (University of Oxford and the Centre for Risk Studies at the Cambridge Judge Business School).

 He warns that such attacks are likely to become more and more prevalent. A Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community report, published earlier this year, noted that “China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways to steal information, to influence citizens, or disrupt critical infrastructure”.

The report, Cyber-Physical Attacks on Electricity Distribution Infrastructure Networks, published in the Risk Analysis journal, outlines conservative scenarios ranging from £20m for a four-substation electricity event to £111.4m for a 14-substation electricity event.

Until Oughton and fellow researchers carried out this study, little was known about the effects and costs of cyber-physical attacks on electricity networks. Such networks are proving to be a point of failure which many people previously thought impermeable.

“The research will be of interest to governments, private infrastructure operators, commercial consumers of infrastructure services and other stakeholders who want to understand systemic risks from cyber-physical attacks on critical national infrastructure,” comments Professor Daniel Ralph of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies.

The paper uses the UK as a case study and identifies the direct impact on household and business consumers of power; the indirect impact of a cyber-physical attack to infrastructure beyond electricity; and provides a greater understanding of systemic risk arising from cyber and smart energy systems. 

The research demonstrates that these types of attacks on electricity distribution substations could lead to further indirect infrastructure cascading failure across telecoms, fresh water supply, waste water and even railways.

To view the paper, visit: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/risa.13291

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