Recent media reports alleged that likely state-backed cyber attackers infiltrated the computer systems of water infrastructure in Israel. With such access, the hackers could have altered the amount of chlorine in treated water, which might have caused the Israelis to shut off water access for tens of thousands of civilians while they fixed the problem. And, of course, if the chlorine level increase went undetected, hundreds of people could have become ill. This is not a random occurrence. We know that competitors and adversaries have perpetrated attacks against critical infrastructure networks in the past. We also know that the Chinese, Russians,and Iranians are preparing to do so.
Imagine the damage that could be caused by a complex, coordinated cyber-attack targeting multiple Bulk-Power System components — like the power substations, generators, transformers, and industrial control systems necessary for operating our nation’s electric transmission network. An attack of this kind could cause much more damage and a longer-term disruption to daily life.
Such a threat is especially concerning for U.S. communities that directly support our military, like Colorado Springs, home to the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, and other defense-critical and energy critical infrastructure.
More generally, a coordinated cyberattack could aim to disrupt communications and operations for fire departments, 9-1-1 call centers, and other emergency response networks. And, of course, an attack on the Bulk-Power System could cause tens of thousands of homes and businesses to lose power and access to running water.
And those are just the immediate effects. If the power took several days or weeks to be restored, we could start to see water contamination and major transportation, communications, and logistics shutdowns. If this situation were to play out simultaneously in multiple regions of the country, it could cause the kind of disruptions we usually see only in movies.
Indeed, just such a threat is outlined in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report issued by the U.S. intelligence community. The report lists China, Russia and Iran as having the ability to execute cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure. And so we must be ever-vigilant and we must secure our Bulk-Power System from malicious attacks.
On May 1, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will do just that. The order authorizes my team at the Department of Energy to work with other federal departments and with private industry to secure the Bulk-Power System by eliminating vulnerabilities within the system and developing policies to keep the system safe for years to come.
The first important action we will take under this executive order is to prohibit future use of Bulk-Power System equipment from any country or individual deemed a foreign adversary, the failure of which would pose a risk to our national security and the safety of Americans. The order also requires us to identify and develop recommendations to remediate existing equipment on the Bulk-Power System that poses a threat. This presents a great opportunity for U.S. manufacturers to fill the void left by prohibited components.
The idea is simple: these critical systems require secure supply chains, whether the products originate from American companies or allies and trusted partners. Absent a secure supply chain, foreign adversaries could intentionally provide faulty equipment and parts or, more likely, use their knowledge of cyber system and electromagnetic vulnerabilities within our critical infrastructure to carry out a targeted attack.
Next, the order calls for the Department of Energy to establish criteria for recognizing specific equipment and vendors as pre-qualified to provide parts used in critical systems. This will ensure a fair bidding process and provide increased business opportunities, incentivizing U.S. manufacturers to produce Bulk-Power System parts and equipment.
Finally, through the executive order, President Trump created a task force, which I will lead, to review and develop federal energy infrastructure procurement policies. This task force will ensure that the foundation of these policies is our national security.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us, we live in an uncertain world. But we must take necessary steps to protect against threats we know are out there. President Trump rightly recognized those threats and acted.
Dan Brouillette is the U.S. secretary of Energy.