Inspired by Emma's post, I've decided to write a bit on something I've read recently: Ted Koppel's book, Lights Out. His novel seeks to reveal many of the nation's gaping holes regarding cybersecurity and defense, both in terms of policy, infrastructure, and mindset. This is my attempt to boil it down to what I found were its more interesting (haunting?) points. Yes Mr. Silton, this is a bit of a preview to my research paper (it honestly barely scratches the surface).
The Power Grids of America (3)
Thanks Prep and Be Ready
No, your eyes don't deceive you. The US is powered by three power grids; one for the East, one for the West, and one for, well, Texas (because why not?). Jokes about Texas seceding from the Union aside, one big what if comes to mind:
What if one of the big grids went down entirely?
Well I sure hope you weren't thinking "The government knows how to handle that!" because the truth is they don't. In Koppel's book, he goes around interviewing top level officials, including Craig
Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's administrator. In addition to an explanation as to the logistical and resource nightmare that is sustaining several millions of individuals for a prolonged period of time (weeks into months), his overall outlook on the situation is best summed up in his final quote (of the chapter):
"We [would be] trying to hang on and keep as many people [as possible] from dying until the system comes back" (118).
Not exactly a statement of reassurance, is it now?
But perhaps I should back up, because the question that comes before this has even more depressing answers.
The Power Grid's Cybersecurity (and Structural Integrity)
I'm going to preview this section with a brief summary of power distribution. Imagine electricity like a resource that has to be moved from point A (generation) to point B (distribution). Now imagine that the transmission lines (seen above) are like a giant railway system that connects these points. This railway analogy illustrates the need to schedule power distribution (like trains on a line) (37), and helps to make Koppel's point about how important the integrity of such infrastructure is.
If hackers were able to worm their way into the system, they could cause irreparable damage not only by taking out the programs that manage the system, but damage the physical infrastructure itself by overloading both the lines and the transformers. And while the security protocols seem air tight on the surface (nothing is connected to the web that directly controls the power), all it takes is one mistake, one infected USB brought into work, and that "air boundary" disintegrates.
This part gets a bit technical, so I'll leave a TL;DR at the end.
DTE Energy's new, 884,000 pound LPT
Transformers are important for managing power; in order to transfer power from say Florida to Michigan, it needs be done at an extremely high voltage. The voltage is no joke, as power lines can be seen sagging under the weight of the electricity at peak transmissions. Cue the large power transformers (LPTs), which are used to both "step up" and "step down" said voltages. LPTs, as important as the might be, are custom built to fit each power company and are gigantic in size and weight (400,000 to 600,000 pounds); roads have to be closed, special train carts need to be used, and bridges inspected just to transport ONE of these things. Needless to say, replacing these things is difficult. And while the exact number of these in use is considered a business secret, estimates range in the tens of thousands (95).
Now let's destroy a couple hundred by sabotage, and watch the ensuing chaos.
Oh and the production time? One to two years, "and never less than six months" (95).
TL;DR: Large complicated power transformers are hard to produce and replace; a powerful attack could destroy thousands, and then the government would be floundering as it attempted to restore power by building them.
This might have been a bit ranty/ based on one source of information. I could be cited for being paranoid, easily swayed, or both. And yet there is something eerie about Koppel's citation from George Cotter's paper Security in the North American Power Grid-A Nation at Risk:
This [electric power] industry is simply unrealistic in believing in the resiliency of this Grid subject to a sophisticated attack. When such an attack occurs, make no mistake, there will be major loss of life and serious crippling of National Security capabilities. [Emphasis added.] (225)That's enough to make me take pause; what about you?
Koppel, Ted. Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. New York City: Crown, 2015. Print.