Homeland Security Expert Lectures on Cybersecurity

Hans Olson, assistant undersecretary of Homeland Security and senior adviser on anti-terrorism and cyber security, lectured on the state of cyber security in the United States this past Tuesday. He addressed the basics of the electrical grid system, the potential threats to it, and the strategies of cybersecurity being implemented to protect the grid, as well as other important forms of both physical and digital infrastructure.

Olson opened his lecture with the historical context of virtual attacks—the first one occurring in 19th-century France through the deceptive use of a physical telegram system. He then connected this to the recent Aurora Project, where cyber actions crossed over to a physical attack on a generator—one of the most important types of infrastructure in the United States.

“It was a government facility where they conducted that attack to show that [the Aurora Project] was capable to conduct physical attacks using our computers at home,” Olson said. “The Department of Homeland Security has designated 16 Critical Infrastructures to the Energy Sector.”

Olson then addressed the potential threats to the American power grid: The grid is the largest interconnected machine on earth, according to Olson. He said that although it is a strong system, it can be detrimental if one line is compromised.

Olson then projected an image of the United States, with the Northeast in a blackout and the rest of the country lit up. He compared this image with that of North Korea, exemplifying the range of a power grid and the detrimental effects of what happens when one is damaged.

“Around 3 million people of the United States and Canada were affected by the Northeastern Blackout of 2003,” Olson said. “While this was not a cyber attack necessarily, we can extrapolate from this exactly what type of attack we could get. Fortunately, we have the grid system in the U.S. so that it is hard to take out the entire country.”

Olson and members of the audience discussed the topic of cyber defense and specific actions the state of Massachusetts has taken to implement cyber defense efforts. Olson mentioned how Governor Charlie Baker has placed priority on security efforts through the establishment of programs such as GridEx IV, an exercise that simulates attacks on the U.S. grid, strengthening the potential for strong cyber security. The state’s efforts have inspired a national push for better cybersecurity as well, according to Olson.

“Here in Massachusetts, Governor Baker has made cyber security a top priority for multiple reasons,” he said. “It’s enabled the education sector, for institutions like Boston College, and lots of companies that are focusing on cyber security as well.”

The audience continued to ask defense-based questions about cyber security for Olson, focusing on the security responsible for preventing election tampering. Olson responded by giving examples of what is currently being done and aspects of civilian life to focus on that can serve as additional forms of defense.

“I think we’ve seen a change in the perception of providing funding for online security,” Olson said. “The security of something like Facebook is not as high of a priority on the list as opposed to defending the national grid, but when it comes to attacking the electoral infrastructure, a different sense of defense is needed.

Olson cited attacks on “geographic areas,” such as traffic lights to create more traffic, to prevent voters from getting to the polls, rather than an attack on physical voting machines.

Featured Image by Katie Genirs / Heights Editor