Albert Carlson: Security Advocate

Nov. 19, 2008
Albert Carlson’s job is to prevent evildoers from breaching the security of networks in critical, everyday operations essential to society.

Albert Carlson's job is to help utilities fortify against attacks from a full gamut of threats--cyber terrorists, spies or even bored students. Carlson is a computer scientist and project engineer at POWER Engineers, Inc., specializing in cyber network security and critical infrastructure protection. Cyber network security is becoming increasingly important to power generation, transmission, and distribution as a part of federal initiative to improve power system security. To operate large-scale power grids and maintain reliability, utilities must have computer control and remote access. With computers and remote access come security issues.

In 2006, the U.S. government passed critical infrastructure protection standards to address some of the problems that will come with computer control of the electric power grid. POWER Engineers, with Carlson’s lead, helps clients understand and implement these standards to protect their systems using these and other security tactics.

POWER Engineers has developed a new cyber security course that will be used to further industry education on the subject at conferences or to utility clients as requested. The presentation covers basic security concepts, network security vulnerabilities, common network attacks and the goals of defending a network.

As the instructor of the course, Cyber Network Security, Carlson goes over how CIP works. “The hardest thing is not to scare everybody,” he said. “Part of being a security professional is that you see reports about all the attacks that occur almost daily. Most people only see what happens in their companies and that happens once in a blue moon. But when they get hit, the damage can be extensive.”

A successful attack can devastate a facility, and utilities must be prepared. Cyber security encompasses everything from physical security to network security. One of the most basic attacks is not necessarily a virus, but a “hammer attack,” Carlson said. “It’s where you walk up to a piece of equipment with a hammer and smash it to pieces. It’s effective and difficult to prevent if someone gets access.”

Carlson is the best person to convey the importance of cyber security: He is a true security professional and is technically savvy with a broad base of experience. He has teaching experience at the University of Idaho in the Computer Science Department. He loves to learn and is willing to take on any task or challenge. As a testament to his eagerness for learning, Carlson took drastic measures to help him pick a major from an all-too-tempting list of countless opportunities for study. To streamline the decision process, he enlisted his sister to blindfold him, spin him around three times and shove him at the list. “I circled computer engineering,” and off he went to the University of Illinois to study computer engineering. Al stated that – to no surprise given his career path – “I was pretty good at it.”

He went into the Army from the University of Illinois and worked as an electronic warfare officer specializing in tactical and strategic cryptography in electronic warfare. After an accident during a dangerous training exercise, he entered the professional world and did everything from safety-critical circuitry to HDTV to IC development for hearing aids.

He returned to school in 2002 to work on his masters and subsequently his PhD at the University of Idaho. As a graduate and post-graduate student there, he led a student team in developing and patenting a computer obscuring/encryption system that protects digital information as it passes from one machine to another.

As a teacher of cyber security, Carlson said he tells students to think outside the box because it’s always the new way to do things that have the potential to disrupt the industry, make everyone react, and cause the greatest impact.

Carlson encourages engineers to pursue his same excitement for accomplishment. “There’s nothing like the kick of watching something you built operate and watching it operate correctly,” he said. “Engineers work months and years for the five minutes they can stand up and demonstrate it to the customer.”

Carlson’s hobbies are as diverse as his experience. He has raised tropical fish, flyfishes for the not-so-tropical fish, and cuts rocks for jewelry. This complements his wife of 28 years, a studio artist who metalsmiths and sculpts in a variety of media.

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