A year or so ago, I read a novel by William Forstchen titled One Second After. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it … especially if you sleep too well at night and need something to keep you awake in the wee hours. The premise of the novel is that an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) has occurred somewhere over the heartland of the U.S., shutting down power grids and plunging the nation into darkness and chaos. It was a disturbing book, especially so when one considers that the technology exists for that very thing to happen.
Yesterday, after President Obama announced sanctions against the Russian government, the municipally run Burlington electric department found, in a laptop not connected to grid systems, malware code used by the Russian campaign linked to cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations. This discovery underscores the vulnerability of our electrical grids and the fact that Russian government hackers have the capability of penetrating those grids.
Many may think, on reading about this latest discovery, that it would be horrible to be without electricity for a “few days”. I remember a week in September 2008, when after a wind storm our electricity was out for several days, and like most humans, I bitched, whined and complained, but all in all it wasn’t the end of the world. Temperatures were moderate, we had plenty of food that did not require cooking, and looking back, it was rather an adventure. But what the compromise of an entire electrical grid, or multiple grids, would bring is something altogether different.
If hackers were to knock out 100 strategically chosen generators in the Northeast, for example, the damaged power grid would quickly overload, causing a cascade of secondary outages across multiple states. While some areas could recover quickly, others might be without power for weeks. Imagine, if you can: Stores are closed. Cell service is failing. Broadband Internet is gone. Hospitals are operating on generators, but rapidly running out of fuel. Garbage is rotting in the streets, and clean water is scarce as people boil water stored in bathtubs to stop the spread of bacteria. And escape? There is none, because planes can’t fly, trains can’t run, and gas stations can’t pump fuel.
I am not an alarmist, and I think there are good reasons that neither Russia nor China, both of whom have proven the capability of such hacking, will refrain from using their capabilities to create what would amount to global chaos. However, it disturbs me to realize that the capability exists and could be used. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. The nuclear missiles placed in Cuba by the Soviet Union were the same type of latent threat that malware code is in a laptop in Vermont.
In December 2015, Russian hackers successfully shut down a power grid in the Ukraine. In this case, the attackers used a kind of malware that wiped files off computer systems, shutting them down and resulting in the blackout, according to cyber-intelligence expert John Hultquist. At least one of the power systems was also infected with a type of malware known as BlackEnergy. A similar combination was used against some Ukrainian media organizations during local elections in 2014.
My purpose is not to be an alarmist, but I do have concerns:
- Despite our best efforts over the years to counter cyber-espionage, hackers have nonetheless been able to penetrate electrical grids, government agencies, and other systems..
- The incoming president has consistently denied any belief that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the DNC earlier this year, and has praised Vladimir Putin excessively. Would the Trump regime be likely to scale back efforts to counter cyber-espionage? Who knows, as there is no predictability to the man with small hands.
- I believe we may be entering a period of a second Cold War, but one more dangerous to the planet than the one from the 1950s – 1960s, if for no other reason than our nation will lack the intelligent and cautious leadership we had back then. At the helm of the U.S. will be an under-educated, inexperienced, and unstable man.
- If our security experts are aware that Russia and China have penetrated systems including electrical grids, then we must ask the question, “who else?” Terrorist organizations have become increasingly tech-savvy in the past two decades, and cyber-terrorism of this nature has far greater potential than anything that has thus far been unleashed by terrorists.
Again, I am not trying to be an alarmist, and really do not believe that our lives are doomed. But I think it is prudent for us, as citizens, to be aware of the potential and do our jobs in electing those who are likely to take the necessary steps to keep not only the U.S., but the world safe. Welcome to 2017.