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AI Can Improve Utilities Cybersecurity and Offer Better Protection

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Emily Newton's picture
Editor-In-Chief, Revolutionized Magazine

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized Magazine. She enjoys writing articles in the energy industry as well as other industrial sectors.

  • Member since 2020
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  • Feb 13, 2023

People have repeatedly warned of the need to tighten cybersecurity at utility companies due to increased risks of devastating attacks. Online criminals love wreaking the most havoc possible and one of the best ways to do so is by attacking critical infrastructure. Fortunately, using artificial intelligence (AI) is an excellent way to address weaknesses in current cybersecurity strategies at utility companies, reducing the chances those entities get attacked.

What Can Artificial Intelligence Do for Utilities Companies?

Utility company decision-makers can use AI in various compelling ways. An excellent way to start is by looking for potential use cases, considering which cybersecurity tasks currently take the most time or often have low success rates. Artificial intelligence is often most valuable when cybersecurity teams are already feeling overtaxed by their workloads.

A 2022 study by Vectra showed 45% of cybersecurity and network professionals are dealing with increased workloads. Moreover, 69% of respondents felt the lag between infiltration and detection gives hackers too much time to get inside networks. However, many companies use AI tools that learn what constitutes unusual network activity. Those products then categorize threats, helping team members determine what to tackle first.

Some AI solutions can also stop intrusion attempts despite no previous exposure to them — particularly helpful since many new types of malware and other threats emerge frequently. A 2022 Kaspersky report found an average of 400,000 malicious files distributed per day during the year. That was a 5% increase over 2021’s numbers.

Research also indicates AI can reduce cyberattack severity. A 2022 IBM report showed organizations using security automation and AI had an average of $3.05 million less in data breach costs than businesses not using such solutions.

The studies above examined various industries. However, the utilities sector in particular has lots of room for improvement. A 2022 DNV study of energy executives revealed 84% believe cyberattacks will cause physical damage to industry assets within the next two years. However, only 44% think it’s necessary to make urgent improvements, despite the increasing risk of threats. Moreover, only 31% feel confident they’d know what to do to act on a concern about a cyber risk or danger to their organizations.

The Utilities Sector Faces Above-Average Risks

The worries that the utilities sector could be a frequent target of cybercriminals are not overblown. A 2022 Moody’s Investors Service report rated gas, electric and water utilities at the highest risk level, on the same tier as hospitals.

In the summer of 2021, energy and cybersecurity experts warned enemies of the United States could disable the country’s power grid. At that time, they believed the malicious actors were primarily money-driven and would make such attempts to profit rather than sabotage.

However, some cyberattacks have multiple aims. Such was the case with a 2021 ransomware attack on a United Kingdom water supplier. A Russia-linked ransomware gang claimed responsibility for the incident and posted about stealing the company’s data on a dark-web site.

Moreover, the attackers showed evidence of accessing interfaces that allowed them to change quantities of water treatment chemicals. If they chose to exploit that access, it could have sickened anyone who uses that water supply.

Artificial intelligence is not a cure-all for every cybersecurity problem in the utilities sector or any other industry. But it’s easy to imagine the devastating effects of successful attacks that compromise the infrastructure people need to work and live safely and healthily.

Before decision-makers think seriously about using AI to keep utility companies safer, they must realize cybercriminals use AI to achieve their aims, too and will continue as technology keeps advancing. A 2023 study from BlackBerry Limited showed 71% of respondents believed foreign states are likely using ChatGPT maliciously against other nations now. That’s significant since the much-discussed AI chatbot has only been available for a matter of months. 

Numerous Challenges Affect the Utilities Sector

Another widespread concern is that cybersecurity is only one of many things threatening the utilities industry. When the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack restricted the gas supply in the Eastern United States, it was a sobering reminder of the need for tighter security. However, grid modernization must also occur to cope with increasing electric demands and strengthen the infrastructure against natural disasters.

If decision-makers lag with cybersecurity investments, problems could derail progress in other areas. Plus, some state legislators are already concerned that utility providers must do more to safeguard their assets against attacks. Lawmakers in North and South Carolina recently proposed improvements after people in their states dealt with the effects of substation attacks.

Ben Moss — a political representative from North Carolina — wants to make utility companies have 24-hour substation security. However, a Senate proposal in South Carolina suggests imposing harsher punishments for those who perpetrate power station attacks. Utility companies could face more requirements depending on how these proposals progress. Some will also likely get fined, even when following all the applicable best practices in cybersecurity.

Statistics also suggest 50% of the utilities workforce will retire over the next decade. Companies must act now to ramp up their hiring efforts, plus look for opportunities to upskill those already in the company.

These examples show how utilities providers have many cybersecurity and non-cyber concerns to address. Investing in artificial intelligence is an excellent way for them to mitigate one of them. All AI cybersecurity solutions require time and financial investments before they’ll pay off for those using them. However, having technology on their side could help more utilities leaders keep their companies better protected.

Artificial Intelligence Enhances Visibility

Utility companies are perpetually busy. Employees must handle the needs of existing and potential customers while investigating current or likely risks threatening the infrastructure. Aspects such as geopolitical tensions and price fluctuations for resources are largely outside the direct control of these businesses. Nevertheless, people must manage the challenges as best they can. 

A final point to make about artificial intelligence is it can help people at utility companies detect things they’d otherwise miss. That improved visibility is vital in preventing cyberattacks or reducing their severity. Even if utilities leaders feel things are well-controlled now and they have not experienced cyberattacks, most would almost certainly agree they could benefit from better oversight. AI provides it and solutions generally perform better the longer people use them. 

Company leaders can only implement AI with careful thought and detailed planning. However, this overview shows why it’s often better to do it sooner rather than later.



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Thank Emily for the Post!
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