The Serious Outside Threat to Our Power Grid

Two years ago in my annual column on predictions for the New Year, I said I feared some rogue group would attack our power grid and could take out cities, banks, businesses, and other high profile services. This was a concern for me and folks in the tech industry in general. Our technology, in one form or another, is at the heart of managing these power grids and I felt an attack on it was also an attack on our tech industry.

I was reminded of this prediction when I read the latest Gartner forecasts that had an interesting take on this subject:

By year-end 2018, 20 percent of smart buildings will have suffered from digital vandalism. Digital vandals will plunge buildings into darkness or deface signs in exploits that may be more nuisance than threat, but which require adequate perimeter security and a strategy that links building security with the larger organizational security process.

As buildings get smarter, they can also become more vulnerable and this compounds the concern I have about potential attacks against the power grid in general. At the IoT/building level, there is stellar work being done in terms of security by companies like Dell, IBM and IoT enterprise software companies like Mocana. But, if the power grid goes down, even these efforts may not be enough to keep them secure.

My fears about this issue were stirred up again last weekend as I watched one of my favorite TV shows, CBS’ Sunday Morning. This TV magazine show always has great stories, some heavy, some lightweight, but I am old school and like to watch it while reading my Sunday paper. On last week’s show, they had an interview with Ted Koppel, the 43 year veteran of ABC news, who was discussing his new book called “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath”.

The book’s description says, “In this tour de force of investigative reporting, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyber attack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.”

Three blurbs state the importance of this book:

“In Lights Out, Ted Koppel uses his profound journalistic talents to raise pressing questions about our nation’s aging electrical grid. Through interview after interview with leading experts, Koppel paints a compelling picture of the impact cyberattacks may have on the grid. The book reveals the vulnerability of perhaps the most critical of all the infrastructures of our modern society: the electricity that keeps our modern society humming along.”
—Marc Goodman, author of Future Crimes

“Ted Koppel has written an important wake-up call for America on the threat of a crippling cyberattack. The danger we face right now is great, but so is the failure to acknowledge that the threat exists at all.”
–Leon Panetta, former U.S. Secretary of Defense

Lights Out illuminates one of the greatest vulnerabilities to our nation – a cyberattack on our power grid. It is a wake-up call for all of us. We are the nation that created the internet; we should be the first to secure it. This powerful book could be the catalyst for just such a change.”
–General (Ret.) Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency

One of the things Koppel said in the CBS Sunday Morning interview is “China and Russia are already in the grid”, according to named sources in the book and that “many other groups are targeting the US power grid.” He also emphasized a key part of the book that says at the moment, “the US is completely unprepared for a major attack on our power grid.”

I don’t believe this book is alarmist in any way and my early read of it shows it is well researched, well written, and presents a very important message to both our government and those of us in the tech industry. However, I have to admit, the more I read, the more scared I am about this actually happening and the aftermath of this kind of attack. I have often been asked what keeps me up at night and it is this attack on the power grid that always comes to mind first.

As retired General Keith Alexander stated in his comments on the book, “This powerful book could be the catalyst for just such a change.” I truly hope our government officials and those managing our power grid take his message to heart and are moving fast to protect these important electronic grids that make our lives easier and our businesses more effective thanks to the power we get from these grids. However, I think we in the tech industry have to be beating a drum loudly as well to get the government and power companies moving faster to secure the grid and root out the likes of Russia, China, and other groups who would love to debilitate and destabilize the US as part of whatever grand goals and schemes they have to weaken the US.

As Mr. Koppel points out, “The US is shockingly unprepared” and this should be a serious wake-up call for all of us, even if it gives us nightmares just thinking about it.

I am not a book reviewer but Mr Koppel has struck a raw nerve with me and his message is something all of us who benefit from the grid need to take note of and start bugging our legislative officials and those running our power grids to get them to deal with this threat with much greater effort than it appears they are doing now. In fact, I am surprised this has not become a campaign issue for any of the current candidates who are running for president because, as the book points out, the takedown of our grid could come in the not-to-distant future. Whoever is elected president may have to deal with this while they are in office.

While the book will most likely be scary to read, I do suggest you think about reading it and getting a sense for how serious this issue really is. I know for those of us in the tech world who understand the ramifications of this message, it needs to be heard and acted upon. Let’s hope those who have the power to protect us understand this threat as well and are working around the clock to prevent it.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

3 thoughts on “The Serious Outside Threat to Our Power Grid”

  1. To what degree is any of this being held back by the old nuclear bomb philosophy of mutually assured destruction?


  2. Just bought the ebook. Thanks for the recommendation. This is an important subject, that’s really a subset of a broader subject. See, we’re analog creatures, that created a digital world. I’m a huge fan of the technology this world contains, but we always need an “analog fallback position”.

    I remember being in the fourth grade and drooling over these new Casio calculators that came out. They cost $45, early ’70s dollars. My mother, bless her soul, told me I could have one, provided I got an A in math on my next report card. When I told her I always got As and Bs anyway, I asked why the wait? (It was a half week’s salary for her). She said that I need to prove to her that I can do my math without it first. She was right!

    It’s important that enough of us know how to build a fire, grow crops, milk a cow, slay and prepare an animal, make fabric, brick, prepare a tincture, etc., etc. Mind you, for all but four years of my life I was a city boy.

    Keep in mind, this can happen by means other than a ‘hack job’. A solar flare can do the same thing. An EMP can as well.

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