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Experts: Info sharing key to protecting U.S. infrastructure from cyber threats

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by Brock Hall, Medill News Service
Experts told federal lawmakers Thursday cyberattacks against U.S. infrastructure could affect things like electricity grids and natural gas pipelines. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Experts told federal lawmakers Thursday cyberattacks against U.S. infrastructure could affect things like electricity grids and natural gas pipelines. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 14, (UPI) -- Experts and officials told lawmakers Thursday it's important to share information among government agencies to protect the nation's infrastructure from cybersecurity threats.

They addressed the issue Thursday in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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"We know that the threat of cyber attacks by foreign adversaries and other sophisticated entities is real and is growing," panel chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak., said, citing specific threats named in the intelligence community's recent Worldwide Threat Assessment report.

"The assessment notes that our electric grid and natural gas pipelines are particularly vulnerable to attack and that Russia is mapping our infrastructure with the long term goal of causing substantial damage."

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In 2015, Russian hackers cut off power to nearly a quarter of a million people in Ukraine.

"We don't want that to happen here," Murkowski added. "We cannot let that happen in the United States."

Two weeks ago, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats warned of two potential cybersecurity attack scenarios. One was a Russian cyberattack that could disrupt an electrical network for hours, and the other was a Chinese attack to disrupt a natural gas pipeline for weeks.

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Karen Evans, assistant secretary for the Energy Department's office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER), cited the creation of her office as evidence of the Trump administration's "commitment to and prioritization of energy security and national security." However, some of the witnesses felt the United States is still under-prepared.

"We need to be smarter and better," Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said of sharing information among agencies. "We can always be better."

David Edward Whitehead of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, a Virginia power system protection company, added perspective of a hardware developer from the private sector.

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"I think we're the most skilled in ascertaining what is the impact of a particular cyber threat because we're the ones writing the code and developing the hardware," Whitehead said, "Getting us looped in as quickly as possible that there's an attack out there and setting up mechanisms would really move us forward in being able to secure our really critical infrastructure."

Chatterjee pushed back on the idea the government isn't forthcoming enough with information.

"There are challenges that occur in sharing the information in a classified setting," he said. "We are doing everything we can to make sure that the information that we gather in a closed setting or open setting is shared with industry partners."

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