NERC calls for new electric infrastructure security measures

Utilities need secure access to telecommunications in the event of disasters, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) said in testimony to the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and destruction of the World Trade Center, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc. could only communicate by e-mail and wireless messaging, NERC said. The telephone system was overloaded by other users.

This dangerous situation demonstrates how important it is for utilities to have secure access to telecommunications in the event of disasters, NERC said. Telecommunications is just one area that needs congressional action, said the volunteer organization that oversees reliability on the interstate electric transmission system.

NERC said any security legislation should include the following:

— Sensitive information needs to be shared quickly and securely between the private sector and the federal government.

— Legislative proposals should be assessed carefully that require disclosure of bulk power system operating data in real time. Disclosures must minimize security risks inherent in the dissemination of critical system operating data.

— Background checks for utility employees need to be expedited.

NERC advised Congress to enact Senate Bill 1456 to encourage information sharing by the private sector with the federal government. But the organization said some information should be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and also from antitrust proceedings, especially certain types of information shared within industry.

The proposal should also require the federal government to analyze and communicate information about potential critical infrastructure threats to the private sector, NERC said.

In light of the events of Sept. 11, NERC said lawmakers should review requirements that some information about system constraints and critical facilities be made public on the internet and in real time. Internet posting could provide easy access to anyone looking to identify weak links in the interconnected electric grid, NERC said. NERC suggested more flexibility is needed in how this data is posted to reflect legitimate commercial and security concerns about public disclosure.

Employee security background checks with the FBI and the Department of Defense can take between 6 weeks and 6 months to complete, NERC said. The amount of time required to check background and fingerprints of employees of critical facilities needs to be shortened, it said.

Finally, NERC said Congress should direct the Federal Communications Commission to do what is necessary to ensure land lines and radio spectrum are set aside for “public safety” entities such as electric utilities.

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