The Pentagon Causes a Widespread Power Outage

For years spy masters have warned that foreign governments are scheming to send the United States back to the dark ages by hacking the power grid. One such apocalyptic scenario, modeled by the University of Cambridge, predicts that a broad scale cyberattack on the grid could cost the American economy as much as $1 trillion. Yet after incessantly directing the public’s attention to foreign hackers it would seem that the Pentagon has finally succeeded in reminding us exactly which power grid threats are the most serious. As Pogo quipped, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Yesterday a surveillance blimp used by NORAD to monitor the East Coast broke free from its docking station at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The blimp took to the skies dragging its tether cables, all 6,700 feet of them, in its wake. While the blimp was eventually captured some 160 miles north in Pennsylvania, during the course of its journey the blimp’s trailing cables snapped power lines near a city called Bloomsburg. The resulting blackout impacted more than 20,000 residences.

This comical incident underpins the reality that the genuine threats to our grid, the ones that keep energy industry directors up at night, aren’t cyber threats. The truly serious threats are physical. For example Gerry Cauley, the chief executive of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, told Reuters  that “there has never been a destructive cyber-attack on the grid… and that he worried more about physical attacks on the power grid than cyber ones.”

This is also something that the Department of Homeland Security agrees with. Specifically, an unclassified report by the DHS states the “The most likely high-profile and potentially consequential TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] are targeted shootings, intentional downing of power lines, and bombings.” A preponderance of empirical data supports this conclusion.

Sort of puts a damper on Admiral Roger’s talking points, his depictions of doomsday, and all that bloviating about cyber threats to the power grid, doesn’t it? This stark contrast, between hypothetical scenarios and hard evidence, raises questions. Like why is the public being deluged with a narrative that grossly inflates the risk of a power grid apocalypse?

A degree of insight can be gleaned by recognizing that the idea of “cybergeddon” generates anxiety. Not fear (which tends to debilitate) but anxiety, because it stimulates a desire for action. In the throes of an alleged crisis anxious people aren’t necessarily particular about the solution as long as it’s presented as a precautionary measure. They’re willing to pay a steep price to feel safe again. And make no mistake, there’s big money to be made peddling security products. Just ask former NSA director Keith Alexander. He wanted to charge banks a consulting fee of $1 million a month for access to his special high-security sauce. Constitutional authority is also a target as the Patriot Act and FISA Amendment Act of 2008 demonstrate.

By taking cybergeddon and treating it as if it were “imminent,” society is lured into a logic-free zone dominated by emotion and secrecy rather than reason. This puts the economic and political imperatives of a small group of wealthy individuals before our own. There are many kinds of insurance (e.g. health, house, car, hurricane, earth quake, life, disability) but this doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy all of them. By naively accepting predictions of cybergeddon, we risk spending resources and yielding civil liberties to protect society at a very high cost, and relinquish the opportunity to invest those resources on measures that will do a much better job at a potentially lower cost without giving up our rights.

Nigel Inkster, a former MI6 agent, summarizes this idea concisely:

We need to be wary of rebuilding our world to deal with just one problem, one which might not be by any means the most serious we face.

A savvy citizen buys insurance strategically; and there are prices that clear-headed people won’t pay.

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. He is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs. Read other articles by William A..