By Christian Chen, Staff Writer
What would happen if the entire country lost power for an extended period of time due to a cyberattack? This is a scenario explored in the National Geographic TV movie “American Blackout.” In the film, a cyberattack on the United States power grid sends the entire country into complete power failure for 10 days. As terrifying as such a scenario may be, and although it may be theoretically possible, it is practically impossible.
This is not to say, however, that America’s power grid is invincible. Enemies of America could attempt to take down the power grid through any means possible. Leon Panetta, former U.S. secretary of defense, called the potential attack a “Cyber Pearl Harbor,” and for good reason: If foreign enemies were to penetrate the grid security and attack the grid, the results could be disastrous. Cascading failures could take months or even years to repair and replace.
As a small-scale example of what such an attack would look like, there was the Stuxnet Worm in 2010, which destroyed more than a thousand centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear fuel plant. Chillingly sophisticated, the worm reportedly targeted frequency converters controlling the rotational speed of a centrifuge.
U.S. Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat in Massachusetts, claimed that one well-placed keystroke could damage the power grid enough to plunge the entire country into darkness. As scary as this sounds, other people disagree on how likely an event like this is.
For example, John McDonald, a grid expert at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said that such an attack is difficult. Extensive firewalls and strict rules regarding thumb drives and CDs, in addition to strategic changes in operations, are just some of the defenses. I beg to differ, however. If you are a smart hacker, such defenses can easily be circumvented.
Some people say that attacking the power grid is actually easier than you would think. A nationwide power outage could result from hackers attacking a handful of substations, which would cause a chain reaction that would eventually lead to a cascading failure. Then again, even those types of attacks are unlikely. Studies have shown that you are more likely to experience a power failure because a squirrel electrocuted itself on a live powerline.
Yet, there’s another theory that people think could cause a nationwide blackout called the Game Theory. This one says that a hacker could set their sights on a few smaller substations and attack them. Once the smaller substations are down, the overload could shift to other, smaller substations, eventually leading to a cascading failure. Supporters of this turn to the blackout of 2003 as an example, when arts of the Eastern U.S. and Canada were without power for at least a day. Now imagine that happening to the entire country for 10 days or more.
The good news is that we’re not completely defenseless. One possible solution to cyberattacks is the development of algorithms that randomly identify specific nodes to protect in a grid at different times. This would minimize a cascading failure.
As for the scenario in the movie “American Blackout,” I must say that for the most part, the plot is accurate, but as always Hollywood likes to exaggerate things. Realistically, if the power were to go out for a long period of time, people would feel confused and slightly elated at first. After all, no power means no one can work. However, you’d quickly have traffic issues, and car accidents would skyrocket. Commuters would be stranded at airports and subways. On day two, the food industry could collapse due to the failure of transportation infrastructure. Transportation would thus grind to a halt. There would also be fears of looting. By day three, riots over food and water would occur, and law and order would slowly collapse. By day four, you’d have total anarchy. Water shortages would lead to illness, and if things got really bad, the National Guard would get involved. In short, without power, society would pretty much collapse in a short period of time.
Yet, launching a cyberattack against the United States’ power grid is not practical. First of all, the potential perpetrators would likely be exposed. There’s no such thing as the perfect crime these days. In addition, the international response would be huge. If a foreign enemy were responsible, then we would be looking at World War III.
In addition, you would need a lot of knowledge of the power grid, as well as resources and skilled people. Taking down the power grid isn’t just a one-man show. Think about how long it took for Osama bin Laden to plan 9/11. If such daring terrorist attacks like 9/11 took years to plan, imagine the time it’d take to plot an attack on the United States’ power grid. America is a superpower and thus is not an easy target for such an act of terrorism. People working in cybersecurity will expose the threat one way or another, and the United States government is currently working on ways to better protect the power grid. In other words, attacking the United States’ power grid would be a death wish.
The scenario in “American Blackout” is possible but difficult to pull off in real life. Because of America’s status as a superpower, in addition to current efforts to better protect the grid and the risk of exposure during the planning of such an operation, attacking the power grid is practically impossible.