Working Together to Combat Cyber Attacks

Computer hacking is a top news story these days, and for years electric cooperatives have focused on blocking cyber threats from interfering with the nationwide electric grid of wires and poles that keeps our lights on.

You can also help defend against that electronic mischief. And you should. Because when use internet-connected devices like your smart phone, you’re instantly connected to the grid.

The network of power lines, transformers and substations adds up to an incredibly complex system that reliably brings us conveniences of modern life. That network is transforming into a “smart grid” that does an even better job of delivering electricity. It’s adding renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, which calls for sophisticated software to figure out how to keep power flowing at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. Computer algorithms make plans for the most efficient and reliable operations when forecasts call for storms, wildfires or times of high-power use.

Making such modern miracles happen means joining with another dominant part of today’s world—the internet.

The blink-of-an-eye speed of balancing the generation of electricity with your flip of a light switch relies heavily on the electronically connected world. The internet is incredibly useful, but also a target of troublemakers from lone, self-taught experts to international crime rings.

Electric utilities know this and work every day through their own offices and national organizations on cyber safety.

You can take smart steps too, to protect yourself, and the electric grid. Because the power grid uses the internet, that means that any of your internet-connected devices are also part of the grid: computers, security cameras, printers, smart TVs, health monitors––even cars and light bulbs can be connected to the internet.

Here are the top tips experts advise to defend against hackers:

Lock the front door.

If you have wireless internet in your home, the traffic comes in through the router. If you take just one step, create a strong password for that router, and set a reminder to change the password regularly.

Use a secret code.

Weak passwords make things easier for hackers. A study found the most-used password in 2021 was, you guessed it, “123456.” A more secure option uses combinations of upper-case and lower-case letters, combined with numbers and special symbols like “&” or “!”

There are apps to help you remember passwords. A simple old-fashioned notebook can also work, as long as you’re certain you’ll never lose it and no one else has access to it. And be aware that every major internet-connected appliance comes with its own factory-installed password you should change right away. The password for my smart TV was, you guessed it, 123456.

Stay vigilant.

If you receive an e-mail with an attachment you weren’t expecting, don’t open the attachment. If you get a message with a link you didn’t know was coming, don’t click it. Even if it’s from a friend, phone them and ask if they sent it—hackers can send messages using your friend’s address.

Stay state-of-the-art.

Your computer and other devices will regularly offer updates—install them. They often contain security updates to protect against the latest cyber threats. And they will come to you directly through your computer, phone or printer—don’t be fooled by an e-mail or message saying it’s an update. You can also go online and ask about any updates to your device.

Next month is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and the Department of Homeland Security has titled this year’s theme, “If you connect it, protect it.” That’s good advice for your home—and for the electric grid.

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56% of the nation’s landscape.

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