Cybersecurity threat 'keeps us up at night,' says Hydro Ottawa CEO

Utility is spending money to protect its command and control centre at the same time it figures out ways to give customers more online access to their power use.

Utility investing heavily to protect its system against hackers

Hydro Ottawa is working to protect its command and control systems against cyber attacks. (CBC)

As the electricity grid becomes more and more connected to the internet, Hydro Ottawa says it's investing heavily to protect the system from cyber attacks.

"It's huge," said Hydro Ottawa CEO Bryce Conrad of cybersecurity. "It keeps us up at night."

Conrad described how someone sitting in a bedroom at a computer on the other side of the world can try to hack into a utility's information systems and do damaging things — like take down a grid.

"There are lots of examples out there where this has come true."

And Conrad says he doesn't pretend it can't happen in Ottawa.

"We're a G7 capital, so we're not just Hydro Ottawa, we're the provider of electricity to a G7 capital. If you don't have electricity in the morning, you're not doing a whole lot," he added.

Connecting customers while preventing attacks

Cybersecurity is detailed as a risk facing the utility in the five-year strategy document that Hydro Ottawa tabled earlier this week at an Ottawa city council meeting.

The strategy describes an industry in the midst of transformation in which electricity systems are converging with, and are increasingly dependent on, information technology.

What you're trying to do is open (the system) up for (customers) and keep the back door closed to someone who wants to do something nefarious.- Bryce Conrad, CEO of Hydro Ottawa

Hydro Ottawa anticipates big changes in the coming years — from increased sales of electric cars to innovations that come from more customers being digitally connected to a smart grid, a system of resources to better manage consumption.

But having people, their homes, their appliances, and their vehicles connected to the internet all the time poses a security challenge for an electric utility like Hydro Ottawa.

"As we become more customer-centric, and give customers more tools to sort of manage these things, you're effectively opening up your system for your customers," said Conrad.

"What you're trying to do is open it up for them and keep the back door closed to someone who wants to do something nefarious."

Heavy investment in command and control centre

That's why Hydro Ottawa considers cybersecurity every time it buys a piece of software or technology, according to Conrad.
Hydro Ottawa CEO Bryce Conrad says the utility is investing heavily to try to prevent cyber attacks. (Kate Porter/CBC)

"We have to invest heavily in cybersecurity and making sure our systems, particularly our command and control systems, are as robust and protected as they possibly can be," he said.

The electricity industry gets together regularly to discuss best practices for protecting utilities from the threat of hacks emanating from terrorists, organized crime groups, or other foreign entities.

"I'll never say we're 100 per cent protected, but we're in pretty good shape."