2016 Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

Cyber Grid Attack: A Cascading Impact

The aggregated impact of a cyber attack on the U.S. power grid could cause huge economic losses and upheaval. 
By: | April 4, 2016 • 8 min read

SCENARIO: The hackers used a range of tactics to gain access to the U.S. electric grid system without alerting security teams — targeting laptops and personal electronic devices of key personnel, conducting phishing attacks, hacking remote access systems and physically intruding on network monitoring locations.

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Months later, they systematically disabled safety systems that would prevent power generators from being desynchronized. They sent control signals to open and close the generator’s rotating circuit breakers in quick succession.

This used the inertia of the generator itself to force out of sync the bearings of 50 generators. They had hoped to destroy 100.

The generators began to smoke and burn. Some were partially destroyed. One gas turbine facility exploded from the generator fire. Operators shut down even the uncontaminated generators until the cause of the damage was determined.

The cascading impact of the cyber attack stuns the nation. Engineers have no definitive explanation for the damage, which plunges 15 Northeastern states and Washington, D.C. into darkness, leaving 93 million people without power.

Back-up generators at hospitals, public facilities and some companies remain available for essential services. Phones, internet, ATMs, street lights, subway cars, gas stations, water systems, manufacturers, and just about everything else goes down. Communications systems are mostly unavailable, except for 911.

No one immediately knows the scope of the infection. Or whether it will reoccur.

VIDEO: Media reports highlight the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid.

ANALYSIS: This “Business Blackout” scenario by the University of Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies and Lloyd’s of London suggests a range of $61 billion to $223 billion in economic losses, depending on the number of impacted generators and whether it took two, three or four weeks to restore 90 percent of the power.

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

“This is a real risk management issue facing the power sector around the world right now,” said Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London, who worked on the “Business Blackout” project.

But even more, he said, it is a risk that “all of society has to confront as more and more of our infrastructure and economy become connected to digital networks.”

Such an attack “would disrupt businesses spanning the entire economy.” In the scenario, it takes several months and up to three years for the economy to fully revert to the GDP levels prior to the attack.

One insurance executive who asked to remain anonymous said it’s impossible to calculate the cascading impact of a cyber attack on the power grid.

“The honest answer is we don’t know,” the executive said. “It’s difficult to say if this is a one-in-100-year event or a one-in-10-year event. How do we know it won’t happen tomorrow or twice in a week? That’s the scary part for us.”

“Cyber is definitely the most dangerous emerging risk. The digital infrastructure was not designed to protect against bad guys.” —Andrew Coburn, senior vice president, RMS; director of the advisory board at the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies

In 2003, overgrown tree limbs short-circuited sagging transmission lines amid hot weather in Ohio that had already strained generating capacity. Combined with human error, the result was a blackout of eight states and part of Canada for 36 hours, affecting 50 million people.

“I think that shows how interconnected the power grid is,” said Jamie Bouloux, president, cyber practice, Ryan Specialty.

Utilities Are “Under Constant Attack”

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Recently, North Korea was accused of hacking a nuclear operator in South Korea; Russia was accused of shutting down Ukraine’s power grid for up to six hours in a sophisticated cyber attack that left up to 230,000 residents in the dark; and Israel’s electric authority successfully fought off a hacking attempt.

“The utilities, energy and infrastructure industries — petroleum, gas, electric power, nuclear, renewable, telecoms, water and sewage — are under constant attack,” said Kevin Kalinich, national cyber leader, Aon Risk Solutions.

The “poster child” for sophisticated nation-state hacks is Stuxnet, where unnamed hackers generally believed to be the United States and Israel introduced malware into Iran’s industrial control systems, causing nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control and damage themselves even while displays indicated normal functioning.

Joe Weiss, managing director of Applied Control Solutions

Joe Weiss, managing director of Applied Control Solutions

The controllers used in Iran are the same as those used in U.S. military systems, power plants, water systems, transportation, manufacturing and other commercial and industrial enterprises, said cyber security expert Joe Weiss, managing director of Applied Control Solutions.

“There are only 10 to 15 vendors [of control systems] worldwide and they supply every industry.”

And they are vulnerable, he said.

“It is possible to compromise the power grid via a cyber attack. Depending on the attack, it is possible to bring the grid down for nine to 18 months. This is existential to the United States.

“Nation-states are actively targeting our critical infrastructure and actively trying to compromise control systems,” Weiss said. “We know that.

“Not much is being done and the cyber insurance world needs to understand the cyber risks to these critical control systems.”

Security Has Increased

Utilities have been working to better secure infrastructure, including the grid and their distribution and transmission networks, said Gary Gresham, senior vice president, power practice, Aon Global Power.

In 2012, $14 billion was spent to shore up grid reliability and redundancy. That’s compared to about $5 billion spent in 2003.

R4-16p35-36_1CCyberrev.inddUtilities and power generators are also working in conjunction with local law enforcement, Homeland Security and the FBI to share information on the types of attacks seen.

But the utility industry is more advanced in protecting their systems and sharing information than other sectors of the country, including transportation, communications, industrial and manufacturing, which also rely on industrial control systems, Gresham said.

Tim Francis, enterprise cyber lead, Travelers

Tim Francis, enterprise cyber lead, Travelers

Tim Francis, enterprise cyber lead, Travelers, noted that insurers and the private sector have dealt with the threat of data breaches for a while, but are “just beginning the journey” on threats to industrial control systems.

For businesses, it may come down to a question of size and scale, said Bouloux.

“Ultimately, if you are a big enough business, you should be able to marginalize the exposure due to a power outage,” he said.

Experts often compare the impact of a power grid hack to the damage and losses resulting from large natural disasters such as Katrina and Sandy, but Bouloux said 9/11 might be a better model for understanding the economic impact such an event could have on the insurance industry, if it was found to be an act of terrorism.

Commercial claims in the New York area alone were varied and complicated — amounting to about $40 billion, of which an estimated $27 billion was paid in claims associated with business interruption, liability and property damage (other than damage to the World Trade Center buildings), he said.

As a single, isolated act of terrorism, it calls into question Lloyd’s estimated insured losses from the 15-state blackout scenario of $21.4 billion to $71.1 billion.

The cascading impact of a cyber attack complicates the picture for insurers.

Andrew Coburn, senior vice president, RMS

Andrew Coburn, senior vice president, RMS

“They need to look at how many insureds’ policies they have that have certain coverages on them,” said Andrew Coburn, senior vice president, RMS, and director of the advisory board at the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies.

“About 12 classes of insurance lines were impacted in the scenario,” he said.

The formula to determine potential losses is complex, often depending on whether companies have “supplier’s extension coverage,” which may have ambiguous wording relating to perils.

To come up with a potential loss, the insurance companies need to work through how long each insured is impacted — which could range from one to four weeks or more — and then take into account deductibles, limits and sublimits, Coburn said.

“We spent the past couple of months working with insurance companies to apply this to their book as a stress test scenario,” he said. “It’s not the easiest one for them.”

Risk Mitigation

Regardless of whether a power outage is due to a natural event or a cyber attack, companies need to prepare in similar ways, Francis said.

They need back-up continuity plans, plans for employees working offsite, and they

Jamie Bouloux, president, cyber practice, Ryan Specialty

Jamie Bouloux, president, cyber practice, Ryan Specialty

need to talk to their broker and insurer prior to any such event to determine what is covered and what gaps exist.

Experts said coverage is available to cover most exposures related to a power-grid attack, but one policy alone will probably be insufficient. For example, power

outages are generally not covered by insurance policies — such as for property coverage — unless there is physical damage.

When planning for continuity, risk managers should look at the electric grid and ensure they have facilities in other grids so those facilities would not be affected, Bouloux said.

Effective mitigation requires an ongoing review of potential exposures from an enterprise risk management perspective, said Gresham.

Risk managers must continually review and update processes and practices to ensure the organization is as resilient as possible and operations have redundancy.

Aon’s Kalinich said it’s possible for insureds to identify and quantify their business interruption losses on a micro level. “The bigger question,” he said, “is the macro level aggregated risk of grid-type exposures” for insurance companies.

“For us, it’s not an academic exercise,” Beecroft of Lloyd’s said. “It’s a real challenge for the industry. We have to be able to pay out claims.

Gary Gresham, senior vice president, power practice, Aon Global Power.

Gary Gresham, senior vice president, power practice, Aon Global Power

“We recognize that there is a large degree of ambiguity and uncertainty about whether or not existing insurance covers would respond in the event of a cyber event.”

Managing the risk requires a partnership of government, insurance and business, he said. “We can’t just accept the vulnerability and throw our hands up. We can manage to make life difficult for hackers, but we can’t reduce the risk to zero.”

“Cyber,” said Coburn, “is definitely the most dangerous emerging risk. The digital infrastructure was not designed to protect against bad guys. It was designed to be efficient. … What is society willing to spend to make that threat go away?” &

BlackBar

2016’s Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

brokenbridgeThe Fractured Future Infrastructure in disrepair, power grids at risk, rampant misinformation and genetic tinkering — is our world coming apart at the seams?

01b_cover_story_crackCrumbling Infrastructure: Day of Reckoning Our health and economy are increasingly exposed to a long-documented but ignored risk.

01d_cover_story_vaccineFragmented Voice of Authority: Experts Can Speak but Who’s Listening? Myopic decision-making fostered by self-selected information sources results in societal and economic harm.

01e_cover_story_dnaGene Editing: The Devil’s in the DNA Biotechnology breakthroughs can provide great benefits to society, but the risks can’t be ignored.

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Reputational Risk

Under Siege

Driven by social media, political wars spill over into the corporate arena, threatening reputations.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 12 min read

On Jan. 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one day after President Trump signed an executive order banning entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including a blanket ban on refugees. The strike was an act of solidarity with immigrants, and a public display of the Alliance’s opposition to the executive order.

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Uber, however, continued to service the airport, tweeting that it would halt surge pricing during the protests. Some saw it as an opportunistic ploy to get more riders to use Uber. A #deleteUber Twitter campaign was quickly born, with users tweeting screen shots of themselves removing the app from their smartphones.

More than 200,000 were estimated to have uninstalled the ride-sharing service over the course of the weekend.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reacted, creating a $3 million legal defense fund to provide lawyers and immigration experts for any of its drivers that were barred from the U.S., and promising that drivers would be compensated for lost wages.

Over the same weekend, in response to the travel ban, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Then it was Starbucks turn to get punished in the public arena. A #boycottStarbucks campaign was launched by people who felt the company should focus more on hiring American veterans.

Athletic shoemaker New Balance suffered blowback in November of 2016 when its vice president of communications, Matt LeBretton, told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview that he believed “things are going to move in the right direction” under the new administration. Angry customers began posting pictures of themselves trashing or even burning their New Balance sneakers.

These social media-fueled public relations crises demonstrate how fickle public opinion can be. They also serve as warning signs of growing reputational risk for corporations.

Uber, for example, typically stops its surge pricing in the event of emergency so as not to exploit a crisis for its own benefit. To do so during the protests and taxi strike at JFK was perhaps meant to show its respect for the event.

Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

Starbucks’ 10,000 refugee hires would be spread out across its locations around the globe, not just in the U.S., where the coffee conglomerate already promised to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2025.

New Balance’s LeBretton was speaking specifically about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his interview, and how the deal could hurt sneaker production in the U.S. while favoring foreign producers — he wasn’t talking about Trump’s other proposed plans.

These companies, in reality, did nothing as abhorrent and scandalous as the Twitterverse may have led some to believe, but context isn’t always provided in 140 characters.

Public Pressure

Complaints and boycotts have been launched at companies via social media for perhaps as long as social media has existed. But the current contentious environment created by one of the most divisive leaders in American history now colors every public statement made by prominent business leaders with a political tint. Executives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re exposed to reputational damage whether they oppose or endorse a Trump action, or even if they do nothing at all.

Take Elon Musk, for example, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and a well-known advocate for climate research and environmental protection. He came under fire for not publicly denouncing the travel ban and for keeping his seat on Trump’s business advisory council.

Musk has largely avoided the limelight on political issues, couching statements when he makes them at all — as most executives are wont to do. But he was prodded to defend himself on Twitter after some users suggested he was a hypocrite.

“Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” —Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

A strategy of avoidance may no longer work as consumers, employees and the public at large pressure companies to make a statement or take action in response to political events.

“A large segment of the population expects the people they do business with and the companies they buy from to support their point of view or respond to political or social issues in a certain way,” said Chrystina M. Howard, senior vice president, strategic risk consulting, Willis Towers Watson.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment, reputation risk is expanding, and risk managers need to re-evaluate how they assess their exposure and build mitigation strategies.

A True Crisis?

The challenge begins with determining whether a negative public relations event is really a crisis. Is it a temporary blow to a brand, or does it have the potential to do long-term reputation damage? Misreading the signs could lead companies to overreact and further tarnish their image.

“These sudden public relations crises are a source of panic for companies, but sometimes it sounds much worse than it actually is. The financial ramifications may not be anywhere near what was feared,” Howard said.

“Uber is probably a good example of what not to do,” said Jeff Cartwright, director of communications at Morning Consult, a brand and political intelligence firm.

“They maybe went over the top in trying to reverse the way they handled the protests at JFK.”

Tracking brand value in real time can give risk managers insight into the true impact of a negative social media campaign or bad press.  Michael Ramlet, CEO and co-founder of Morning Consult, said most events don’t damage brands as much as trending hashtags make it appear.

Morning Consult’s proprietary brand tracking tool allows companies to measure their brand perception against influencing events like a spike of Twitter mentions and news stories. More often than not, overall brand loyalty remains on par with industry averages.

In Uber’s case, Twitter mentions spiked to roughly 8,800 on Jan. 29, up from about 1,000 the day before. By Jan. 31, though, the number was back down to around 1,250 and quickly settled back down to its average numbers. From the beginning of the #deleteUber campaign through the end of February, Uber’s favorability shrunk from 50 percent to roughly 40 percent, based on a series of polls taken by 18,908 respondents.

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It’s a significant dip, but likely not a permanent stain on the company’s reputation, especially after Kalanick’s public show of support for immigrants and rejection of the travel ban. Uber’s favorability rating remained higher than competitor Lyft’s throughout the ordeal.

“The #deleteUber campaign turned out to be a very local thing that didn’t have a widespread impact,” Ramlet said.

“Twitter at best is an imputed analysis of what people are saying. The vocal minority might be very active, but there might be a silent majority who still think fondly of a brand, or at least have no negative opinions of it.”

He said risk managers can also benefit by breaking down their brand perception into geographic and demographic subsets. It can, for example, show whether a brand is favored more heavily by Democrats or Republicans.

“If you have that data on day one, it can help you determine how to respond if, say, Trump tweets at you,” Ramlet said.

Of course, some spikes in news media and social media attention are indicative of much deeper problems and true reputational risk.

After the Wells Fargo dummy-account scandal broke, for example, unfavorability ratings as measured by Morning Consult jumped from roughly 20 percent to nearly 55 percent, while favorability dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Net favorability, which stood at 33 percent pre-scandal, fell to -4 percent post-scandal.

“They went from being the most popular bank to the least popular in less than four months, according to our data,” Ramlet said.

The contrast between Uber’s and Wells Fargo’s stories demonstrates the difference between a more surface-level public-relations event that temporarily hurts brand image, and a true reputation event.

“Failures that produce real and lasting damage to reputation include failures of ethics, innovation, safety, security, quality and sustainability,” said Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re.

“Activists make a lot of noise that can be channeled through various media, but for the most part in the business world, stakeholders are interested in the goods and services a company offers, not in their political or social views. As long as you can meet stakeholder expectations, you avoid long-term reputational damage.”

Wells Fargo’s scandal involved a violation of ethics, sparked an SEC investigation and forced the resignation of its CEO, John Stumpf. It’s safe to say stakeholders were severely disappointed.

That’s not to say, however, that a tarnished brand name doesn’t also impact the bottom line.

“Even if a bad event is short-lived, the equity markets react quickly, so there may be sharp equity dips. There may be some economic impact even over the short term,” Kossovsky said, “because sharp dips are dog whistles for activists, litigators and corporate raiders.”

Social Media Machine

The root of reputation risk’s tightening grip lies in the politicizing of business, and consumers’ increased desire to buy from companies that share their values. Social media may not be driving that trend, but it acts as a vehicle for it.

“Social media has really changed the game in terms of brand equity, and has given people another way to choose who they give their money to,” Howard of Willis Towers Watson said.

Platforms like Twitter make it easier for consumers to directly reach out to big companies and allow news to travel at warp speed.

“Social media are communication channels that can take a story and make it widely available. In that regard, the media risk is no different than that posed by a newspaper or radio channel,” Kossovsky said.

“The difference today that changes the strategy for risk managers and boards is that social media has been weaponized: Stories shared on social media don’t necessarily have to contain truthful content, and there’s not always an obvious difference between what’s true and what’s not.”

Helen Chue, Facebook’s global risk manager, agreed.

“More influential than social media platforms is today’s culture of immediacy and headlines. Because we are inundated with information from so many sources, we scan the headlines, form our opinions and go from there,” she said.

“It’s dangerous to draw conclusions without taking a balanced approach, but who has the time and patience to sift through all the different viewpoints?”

An environment of political divisiveness, driven by speed and immediacy of social media, creates the risk that false or half-true stories are disseminated before companies have a chance to clarify. This is what happened to Uber and New Balance.

“It creates the opportunity to turn a non-problem into a problem,” Kossovksy said.

“That’s how social media changes the calculus of risk management.”

Risk Mitigation

The best way to battle both political pressure and social media’s speed is through an ironclad communication strategy; a process that risk managers can lead.

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“Risk managers play a crucial role in mitigating reputation risk,” Howard said.

“They bring with them the discipline of managing and monitoring a risk, having a plan and responding to crisis. Now they really have to partner with communications, marketing and PR.”

They also have to get the attention of their board of directors.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk.” — Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re

“This is both a company-wide risk and personal leadership risk, so the board needs to drive a company-wide policy that protects the board as well,” Kossovsky said.

The art of mitigating reputation risk, he said, comes down to managing expectations. Corporate communications should clearly convey what a company believes and what it does not believe; what it can do and what it can’t do. And those stated values need to align with the operational reality. It comes down to creating credibility and legitimacy.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk,” he said. A strong communication strategy can prevent adverse events from turning into reputational threats.

Willis Towers Watson helps clients test their strategies through a table-top exercise in which they have to respond to a social media-driven reputation event.

“We’ll say, ‘Something happened with X product, and now everyone’s on Twitter lambasting you and calling for resignations, etc.’ What do you do on day one? What do you do a week out? How long do you continue to monitor it and keep it on your radar?” Howard said.

“If you have that plan in place, you can fine-tune it going forward as circumstances change.”

Sometimes, though, the communication strategy fails, and a company falls short of meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Now it’s time for crisis management.

“Volatility creates vulnerability. If you stumble on your corporate message, it creates an opportunity for activists, litigators and corporate raiders to exploit. So you need to have authoritative third parties who can attest to your credibility and affirm the truth of the situation to open-minded stakeholders,” Kossovsky said.

Owning up to any mistakes, reaffirming the truth and being as transparent as possible will be key in any response plan.

Insuring the Risk

Recouping dollars lost from reputation damage requires a blend of mathematics with a little magic. While some traditional products are available, reputation risk is, for the most part, an intangible and uninsurable risk.

“Many companies have leveraged their captive insurance companies in the absence of traditional reputation products in the marketplace,” said Derrick Easton, managing director, alternative risk transfer solutions practice, Willis Towers Watson.

“It goes back to measuring a loss that can include lost revenue, or increased costs. Some companies build indexes in the same way we might create an index for a weather product, using rainfall or wind speed. For reputation, we might use stock price or a more refined index,” he said.

“If we can measure a potential loss, we can build a financing structure.”

While there’s no clear-cut way to measure losses from reputation damage, “stock performance and reported sales changes are some of the best tools we have,” Howard said.

Some insurers, including Allianz and Tokiomarine Kiln, and Steel City Re, an MGA, do offer reputation policies. When these fit a company’s needs, they have the ancillary benefit of affirming quality of governance and sending a signal that the insured is prepared to defend itself.

“Because reputation assurance is only available to companies that have demonstrated sound governance processes, it helps to convince people that if a bad piece of news happens, it’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t reflect what the company really stands for,” Kossovsky of Steel City Re said.

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“And it tells activists, broadly defined, not to look for low-hanging fruit here.”

In a volatile political environment, companies fare best when they simply tell the truth.

“The American public will accept an apology if delivered quickly and if it’s sincere,” said Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman professor (marketing/communications) emeritus, of the Harvard Business School.

“Tell the truth. Don’t stonewall. A bad social media campaign can be an embarrassment, but if you stick to the facts and apologize when you need to, people forget about the bad quickly.”

“Reputation is the crown jewel,” Chue said. “Given the power of social media’s reach, one individual can have a tsunami-like influence. And it can happen when you least expect it, and it will probably be something you thought was innocuous or even positive that sets off a maelstrom.

“Plan for the worst-case scenario. Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” &

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]