Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared
© 2015 Ted Koppell
In Lights Out, investigatory journalist Ted Koppel comments on the vulnerability of the United States’ power grid to a cyber attack, and reviews the way government agencies, private citizens, and other organizations are attempting to prepare for a grid-down scenario.
The story begins with the integration of the internet and the electrical grid, which allows for an efficient market but at the cost of vulnerability of outside attack. The threat doesn’t come from nation-states like China and Russia, however; although they almost certainly have hooks deep inside energy’s cyber infrastructure, they have too much to lose from reprisals. Entities like North Korea and Isis have no such qualms. The most dire attack would be one similar to that which the United States and Israel employed in Iran: a viral program introduces commands into their centrifuges which slowly undermined their functionality. If the large power transformers which are the backbone of the electrical network are destroyed or seriously damaged, widespread and prolonged outages would follow. Not only are these massive machines custom-built for each location, they require special rail cars for transport; replacing one would take anywhere from six months to two years.
After establishing the problem, Koppel moves to attempts a solution. Although various government agencies, including the White House, have expressed concern over the vulnerability, plans at redressing the situation are slow in coming. Washington’s stance toward cyber attacks against civilian infrastructure seems motivated by a conviction that the United States can and will strike first, as though cyber shocks can be predicted. There is a growing awareness of the problem, but response has been marginal at best. Not only is the American government not ready to defend against a pointed cyber attack on its electrical grid, it is not ready to deal with the chaos that would ensue from widespread power outages. Without electricity, the constant production and shuttling of goods and services would shut down completely; major cities would exhaust commercial supplies in less than days, and after that — what social hell would follow? FEMA’s plans seem to involve evacuating major cities like New York, but to what end? Keeping supplies for that many people is problematic, considering that if there’s no emergency, the supplies simply go to waste. The agency is far more prepared for regional disasters than it was after 2005’s Katrina, but that’s a fairly low bar.
In the last third of the book, Koppel examines communities like the Mormons and the prepping community which steel themselves for emergencies. The Mormons are motivated by a series of nasty altercations — small-scale wars, even — between themselves and state militias in the 19th century, but their entire church structure seems engineered for resilience. Likewise impressive are rural communities in Wyoming, who acknowledge that in the event of a grid-down scenario, they would be left to their own devices while D.C. prioritizes places like New York City. People in sparsely-settled states like Wyoming are more kin to their pioneer forebears than they are the naked urbanite, who is at the mercy of complex systems working as planned.
Lights Out is a most interesting book, with at least three subject areas: energy, cyberwar, and emergency preparation. Given Koppel’s name recognition, I could see this book as one introducing a lot of citizens to the general idea of cyber attacks, or even the importance of electric infrastructure — subjects that few people would be willing to pick up a book about. It’s not exactly complete — Koppel doesn’t mention, for instance, that there are three grids in North America, so damage wouldn’t necessarily be continent-wide. (The three grids are the eastern seaboard, the western seaboard, and Texas. The publisher’s cover actually hints at the segmentation, though) It succeeds at isolating the key points about abstract systems and distilling them into a warning, however.
Cyber War, Richard Clarke. Clarke is quoted extensively.