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Is Houston prepared for a cyber attack on the power and transportation grids?

HOUSTON – Are we ready for a cyber attack on our power grid? Channel 2 Investigates is looking into Houston's cyber vulnerabilities and what's being done to protect the power grid from a possible attack. It seems like almost everything runs on electricity. A cyber attack against the power grid could shut down life as we know it.

"When my husband goes to work, I stay home and take care of everything around here," said mom Brittany Sawyer.

Brittany Sawyer is a busy mom who also homeschools her three kids. Brittany doesn't have time for power problems.

"A lot of great curriculum is computer, TV, or DVD based and it would be crippling to not be able to do that," said Sawyer. "When we lose power there is not a ton we can do."

Houston’s Threats

Living in Houston, you expect sporadic power outages from time to time, especially during severe weather. The outages are usually nothing more than a nuisance with power restored in a couple of hours. More widespread power outages like those we see during hurricanes are more problematic, lasting for days. A successful cyber attack on Houston’s power grid could be much worse.

"Our general mission is to be able to come in and help our community respond and recover from events, cyber attacks include," said Francisco Sanchez, Harris County Office of Emergency Management.

Channel 2 Investigates found there are thousands of cyber attacks against critical infrastructure, like power grids, every day in Houston and in cities across the country. Most of them are not wide scale attacks designed to shut down entire systems. Francisco Sanchez's team at the Harris County Office of Emergency Management still prepares for worst case scenario.

"It could be very serious if technology to the Office of Emergency Management or any partners like transportation were impacted, but our job is to be paranoid," said Sanchez.

Lessons from New York City

In the Summer of 2003 a massive blackout crippled New York City's transit system for days. Turns out it wasn't a cyber attack, it was a big bug in the system that caused the outage. But during that time with no power there were no subways and no traffic lights. People jammed the streets trying to get home any way they could. Thousands of people ended up just walking home.

A successful attack on our power grid could cause chaos on our already traffic-choked streets. Power outages could ground airplanes, shut down the port or render light rail useless. But that chaos may be a secondary concern.

"We would want to check our nursing homes. hospitals, those people in the community who rely on medical equipment that has to have power so our response will be geared towards making sure that life safety was our first mission."

The first line of defense

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, provides power to 90% of the state. It’s the first line of defense for more than 25 million people.

“ERCOT prepares year round for any type of threat to the electrical system,” said Leslie Sopko, spokesperson for ERCOT. “We have highly trained cyber security staff that are continually monitoring the electrical system to help us safeguard against any threats.”

ERCOT uses a five function framework to guard against cyber threats: Identify, protect, detect, respond and recover. And during last year’s legislative session, Texas Lawmakers passed a few bills to pump up protection. One of those bills creates a “Grid Security Council” and another establishes a “Cyber Security Monitor.”

What’s next?

While the experts say a massive, grid-killing attack isn’t very likely, the threat still makes Brittany Sawyer think. “What do we use electricity for? It really is a lot,” said Sawyer.

Next Thursday, February 20th, Channel 2 Investigates will conclude its series on Houston’s Cyber Threats with a look at what an attack could do to our banking and finance industries. What is being done to protect your money?