Wisconsin arming itself for cyber warfare

As a military man, Major General Donald Dunbar knows that no battle plan, no matter how sound, survives an encounter with the enemy. It’s a fog-of-war principle that argues not against planning but for the ability to make adjustments on the fly.

The same applies to the fog of cyber war, and that’s why Dunbar, adjutant general with the Wisconsin National Guard, has forged an alliance with the state of Wisconsin and private businesses to develop a strategy to defend the homeland from cyber attacks. Not just any cyber attack but one that knocks the electrical grid out of commission for a prolonged period of time.

To see through the kind of thick fog a cyber disruption would bring, Dunbar and David Cagigal, chief information officer for the state of Wisconsin, have led the formation of a state cyber disruption response strategy involving critical infrastructure operators such as utility companies and communications networks.

The strategy is only the first step in addressing a prolonged grid power outage. Based on information gleaned during the 2016 Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media, limiting the impact of a cyber disruption event begins with protecting the “critical nodes” of infrastructure system from the cyber networks that could at­tack them. Those critical nodes will be identified with an analysis of network interdependencies, but the overall strategy also involves protection, detection, response, and recovery.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, chaos reigned in two distinct regions of the country — the Gulf Coast and the northeast — but a prolonged shutdown of the grid could surpass the destruction of either storm event. “We can handle snowstorms, floods, or other chaotic situations well, but in the event of a cyber attack how do we get the show on the road and marshal our resources to respond in a timely manner?” Cagigal asks. “Such an attack will require an instantaneous response.”

Dunbar refers to a “parade of horribles” that could occur, noting that fresh water, communication services, and sewage treatment are among the services that rely on electric power generation. In addition, there would be disruptions in rail service and other systems whose security and resiliency are vulnerable.

“Imagine millions of people leaving their homes because they can’t live there any more because conditions are so bad,” Dunbar states. “We’re trying to buy down that risk.”

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As part of a public-private partnership, some response exercises have already taken place, with more team training to come. Among the entities involved are the Wisconsin National Guard and private-sector partners such as AT&T and IBM, Madison Gas and Electric, Alliant Energy, WE Energies, American Transmission Co., and the Point Beach Nuclear Plant.

“The government does not own the assets, so this has to be public-private partnership,” Cagigal explains. “We lease the lines and they own the lines. All that wire in the ground is theirs. We can’t control the performance of those lines. We have to partner with them on public-private basis.”

One of the protection strategies could be to “go backwards” and develop a way to provide electric power the old-fashioned way, through the kind of micro-generation that existed 100 years ago. “Someone needs to start looking at what our alternative grid would be,” Cagigal states.

The most important aspect of the response might be the restoration and maintenance of communications services, Dunbar notes. That’s because if the public does not sense the response is going well, even if it’s proceeding on pace, panic can set in.

Whatever unfolds, the Wisconsin National Guard’s role will be to spackle the cracks. “This is a different animal,” Dunbar says. “It’s about where we can fill the gaps to help recover. We are looking for gaps and seams if the parade of horribles happens. The National Guard will help in small pockets while the broader outage is dealt with.” 

Eternal vigilance

What would Wisconsin businesses do in the event of a cyber disruption? In such an event, employers might think they are covered with business continuation plans that include satellite phones, backup generators, and the delivery of diesel fuel and water. But will that be enough if cyber criminals shut down the electrical grid for three months or longer?

“We have to think about what Plans C or D look like,” Cagigal notes. “We are collectively working to help business people understand the seriousness of the issue.”

Many people have said it’s not a matter of if the electrical grid is disabled as a result of a cyber attack, but when. This is why related planning and training will be an ongoing part of emergency response planning. “There is no getting done here,” Dunbar says. “Here we are in 2016, and long after we’ve departed this earth this will be a problem for human beings. Hopefully, we can come up with better solutions.”

Writer Joe Vanden Plas, editorial director for In Business magazine, covered Fusion 2016 for WTN Media and In Business.

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