An Internet-based attack on one of the nation’s three power grids could result in a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that leaves tens of millions of Americans without electricity, running water, plumbing, the ability to communicate, and other necessities for weeks—even months.
And the government has no plan to address this likelihood.
Award-winning broadcast journalist and former ABC “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel sounds the alarm on this prospect in the best-selling “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”
He’ll address the 2016 CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference (GAC) in Washington, D.C., Feb. 21-25.
Koppel explains the probability of such an attack and its aftermath during a recent interview with Credit Union Magazine.
Despite warnings about the danger from high-ranking government officials including President Obama and former secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, he says “nobody seems to be paying any attention.”
“The former secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, spoke of this as being the equivalent of a cyber Pearl Harbor,” Koppel says. “My fundamental question was, if indeed there is the likelihood of this happening—and CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin told me it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’—what is the federal government doing to prepare for the protection of the American public?
“My hunch was there isn’t a plan. And in fact, that’s what I found.”
Koppel outlines a grim scenario in the event of a disabling cyberattack on one U.S. power grid:
“You would quite literally have more than 100 million people without electricity for a period of at least weeks and maybe months. That would mean no heat in the winter and no cooling in the summer, no refrigeration, no ability to turn the lights on, and no ability in your major urban centers and apartment buildings to flush the toilet.
“There would be no running water because the pumps that push the water through the pipes are all run by electricity.
“You’d have a very limited capability to communicate because the cell phones and laptops that operate on batteries would be out in a matter of a day or two. And if somehow they managed to keep the broadcasting facilities up, if your TV isn’t working and if your radio doesn’t have batteries—or if the batteries run out—communication is cut off pretty quickly.”
That’s not to mention the banking system going down and health facilities becoming severely handicapped, he adds. “We tend to take it for granted but most of us, certainly the city dwellers, are almost totally dependent on electricity.”
How can we prevent this from happening? We probably can’t.
The electric power industry, Koppel explains, is comprised of 3,200 companies connected in a gigantic network.
“In order for the electric power system to work, there must be a perfect balance between the amount of power that’s generated and the amount of power that’s used,” he says. “This is controlled by the Internet by what’s called a SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] system. If someone gets into those SCADA systems, they can take it out.”
Koppel notes that the Internet was never designed to be protected. “The Internet was designed so smart people could exchange good ideas. The idea that the Internet would ever have to be defended against attack is not something that originally occurred to the designers of the Internet.”
While the large power companies are doing all they can to defend the SCADA system, he says, “the follow-up question needs to be, is it possible to completely defend the power grids against a cyberattack? As best as I can determine, the answer is ‘no.’ ”
That’s why Koppel believes it’s prudent for people to do what he’s done: build up a long-lasting supply of food and water for himself and his family.
“I say that understanding that a great many people can’t afford to do that—they have enough trouble putting food on the table every day,” he says. “But if those who have the means to buy freeze-dried food and the space in which to store it, then if and when the government finally wakes up to the notion that it will have to take care of everyone else who can’t, at least there will be fewer people who need the government’s help.”
In the long-term, Koppel believes the U.S. needs to design new, stand-alone systems outside of the gigantic power networks. “But these are programs that will take years if they were started right away. And there doesn’t seem to be any particular incentive right now to get these programs underway.”
He cites Ridge, who noted that the U.S. tends to be reactive rather than proactive.
“So in the wake of something like Sept. 11, we spend $3 trillion on two wars and creating outfits like TSA,” Koppel says. “Over the past 12 years, taxpayers have spent $100 billion on TSA. But if someone were to say, ‘we should spend $100 billion in gradually acquiring food so that anyone who’ll need it in case of emergency will have it,’ I don’t think you’d manage to get that through Congress.”
Koppel hopes “Lights Out” will create discussion about this issue that ultimately spurs the government and other parties to action.
“I hope to begin a national dialogue on this subject—and what better time to do it than right in the middle of the presidential campaign?”
Koppel will address the 2016 CUNA GAC Tuesday, Feb. 23.