COMMENTEMAILMORERevelations about the cyber theft of customer data at Target and Neiman Marcus are just the most recent reminders about the threat to the United States of cyber attacks. In the digital age, damage to sensitive communication networks and power grids could be crippling. This ultraviolet photograph of a massive solar flare, spanning a third of a million miles into space, was taken on Dec.
Nobody knew what to call it in 1859, when the most dramatic solar storm on record shocked telegraph operators, set their paper ablaze and lit up the horizon with brilliant auroras.
Sky watchers now know the sun can belch out dozens of solar flares and related eruptions every year, including one that put electricity grid monitors on alert this month. Bursts known as a coronal mass ejections especially can destabilize the power grid by causing vibrations in the Earth's magnetic field, as NASA explains. Solar researchers say their challenge is figuring out which bursts threaten disruption on the scale of the so-called Carrington Event, which bedeviled telegraph operators and crippled communication systems in 1859. In the digital age, damage to sensitive communication networks and power grids could be more crippling, although utility regulators say they are planning to toughen protective measures. He said the unpredictable flares happen more often at the height of the sun's 11-year activity cycles, one of which is near its peak.
The biggest eruptions can happen anytime during the solar cycle, said Bob Rutledge, who leads the federal Space Weather Forecast Office in Boulder, Colo. During the 1859 event, named for British astronomer Richard Carrington, who documented it, the northern lights dazzled observers as far south as the Caribbean Islands, and telegraph systems picked up so much energy from the solar storm that handsets began sparking and setting nearby papers on fire. Frank Koza, the infrastructure planning director for a regional power transmission group, said such an event today could result in blackouts in Pennsylvania, but they shouldn't last for more than nine to 12 hours. PJM, which manages power distribution in 13 states, relies on detectors to monitor natural electrical currents that could trouble the regional grid.

That system has been in place since the blackout in Quebec, with additional alerts coming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when solar activity could menace the stream of power, Koza said. He said PJM can reduce the flow or boost voltage in some areas in a balancing act to offset solar disruption. Several telecommunications companies and the National Coordinating Center for Communications, a federal agency, did not comment on preparations in their industry. Scientists agreed that there's no reason to panic but urged awareness, public education and readiness, such as having a few days' worth of food and water available in case of power failures. She said they amount to a small fraction of overall solar activity, endangering technology on Earth only in very limited circumstances. General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, speaks at the IHS CERAWeek Thursday, March 8, 2013 at the Hilton Americas in Houston. A group of regulatory and intelligence experts that includes a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Thursday they have launched a new effort to focus on computer security solutions facing energy companies and the government.
The goal of the group, which includes former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden, will be to make proposals that can fill in holes and clarify gray areas in regulations and standards to help the electric grid protect against online threats. Critics have argued that slow action from the government and on computer security threats are a result of uncertainty about the best approaches to security and policies that could help encourage them to ensure a safer electricity grid. Energy companies, from electricity providers to oil producers and refiners, have been increasingly targeted by online threats and are thought to be vulnerable to a tailored attack. Such an attack could have physical repercussions, including damage to facilities, the electric grid, or even lost lives. The Electric Grid Cyber Security Initiative, as the group has named itself, is a project of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Those initiative co-chairs “will consult with an advisory group of industry experts, former government officials, and other cyber security specialists,” according to a news release.

But invasive and costly attacks on businesses and all of us as customers may not even be the most worrisome threats.Rather, cyber threats to critical infrastructure -- for example, water, energy and telecommunications — are important to our national security. Those vibrations cause invisible electric currents that can overwhelm circuitry and lead to prolonged shutdowns. It really doesn't take much to overload,” said Carles Badenes, an astrophysicist at the University of Pittsburgh. He said scholars predict a 6 percent to 12 percent chance of a Carrington-level disruption in the next 10 years. He said he could not predict with certainty how the system might react to a Carrington-type event. It will also include former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Curt Hebert and Susan Tierney, former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Energy.
The Department of Homeland Security recently reported responding to 198 cyber-incidents in 2012 across all critical sectors.
The North American electricity grid is sprawling, with approximately 5,800 major power plants and more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. And our economy is pervasively dependent upon its functioning.Efforts to prevent and respond to cyber attacks on the electric grid are complicated by a complex governance structure. In addition to the countless companies involved with pieces of the grid and actions to protect it, numerous federal, state and local agencies are involved in some aspect of cybersecurity.
Successfully managing cybersecurity risks and recovering from a destructive cyber attack will require effective coordination at several levels, including U.S.

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