There are many, many ways to attack a country that don’t involve dropping a single bomb or firing a single bullet. Look around at the political chaos Russia is seeding in the United States at this very moment, having successfully hacked into the Democratic National Committee servers and releasing the information through Wikileaks, using propaganda and social media to deepen social divides on wedge issues like gay marriage and racial equity. All of this paved a path to victory for a president who weakens us every single day he’s in office, degrading our relationships with our most trusted allies and shaking the western alliance to the core.
But another very real danger is lurking, one that could be catastrophic to modern America: an attack on our antiquated electrical grid. Experts warn that our aging grid is a massive threat to our economic and national security. We live in a world powered by this grid. Everything … and I do mean everything. From stoplights to telecommunications to money transactions. Hospitals, schools, gas pumps, water systems. **Poof** All of this could be gone in the flick of a switch.
With that in mind, this news is especially troubling: Department of Homeland Security officials say the Russians successfully hacked into the control rooms of U.S. electrical utilities and could’ve thrown the switches at any time. From the Wall Street Journal:
The Russian hackers, who worked for a shadowy state-sponsored group previously identified as Dragonfly or Energetic Bear, broke into supposedly secure, “air-gapped” or isolated networks owned by utilities with relative ease by first penetrating the networks of key vendors who had trusted relationships with the power companies, said officials at the Department of Homeland Security.
“They got to the point where they could have thrown switches” and disrupted power flows, said Jonathan Homer, chief of industrial-control-system analysis for DHS.
Intelligence experts have been warning of these types of attacks for years.
“They’ve been intruding into our networks and are positioning themselves for a limited or widespread attack,” said Michael Carpenter, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, who now is a senior director at the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are waging a covert war on the West.”
In 2017, Stewart Madnick of the Harvard Business Review wrote about how a loss of power can have a snowball effect on our everyday lives that could be catastrophic.
Here’s an example of second-order effects (though not caused by a cyberattack, they’re a good way to think through what could happen in an attack). In February 2017, an area of Wyoming was hit by a strong wind storm that knocked down many power lines. It took about a week to restore power, due to heavy snow and frozen ground. Initially, water and sewage treatment continued with backup generators. But the pumps that moved sewage from low-lying areas to the treatment plants on higher ground were not designed to have generators, since they could hold several days’ worth of waste. After three days with no power, they started backing up. The water then had to be cut off to prevent backed-up waste water from getting into homes. The area had never lost power for so long, so no one had anticipated such a scenario.
Now think about what would happen if a cyberattack brought down the power grid in New York, for example. New Yorkers could manage for a few hours, maybe a few days, but what would happen if the outage lasted a week or more? For an example of the kind of disruption such an attack could cause, consider the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It knocked out both the power lines and the backup generators at the same time. Either event could have been managed, but both occurring at the same time was a disaster. Without power, the cooling systems in three nuclear reactors failed, resulting in massive radiation exposure and concerns about the safety of food and water. The lesson: We need to prepare not only for an unexpected event but also for the possible secondary effects.
How long could you and your family last without power in the modern world? How many businesses could survive with days, weeks, months of being closed? Russia wouldn’t need to invade the United States to wreak havoc and seriously damage the economy.
It is time to build a wall, America—a cyberwall to protect our nation’s power grid. Forget the concrete and steel monstrosity dividing the U.S. from Mexico, the real enemy, the real threat to America is lurking online. It’s been a matter of economic and national security for years, but now the threat is truly at our door.
See the 2013 Wall Street Journal video below on just how dangerously outdated and vulnerable our grid really is and recall that President Obama offered an infrastructure plan that would’ve upgraded it and safeguarded the nation against attack, but Republicans refused to pass a single package for fear it would make Obama even more popular. It would’ve put a lot of Americans to work and they couldn’t have that, now could they? Nevertheless, in 2009, President Obama awarded a $3.4 billion grant to upgrade the system, but that was really a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $5 trillion it would take to seriously bring the grid up to modern standards. In fact, one of President Obama’s last acts was to issue orders to prepare options for an attack on the Russian electric grid in response to Russian manipulation of the U.S. presidential election.
Republicans in Congress can no longer put their heads in the sand and ignore the danger lurking at our digital door.