By Mateo Zules '22; Image by Getty Images
In August of 2003, the power in Ontario and much of the North East United States went out for a couple of days. Blackouts are dangerous, and 100 people died as many hazards arose (ie. carbon monoxide detectors not working). Daily life ground to a halt as subways transportation wasn’t functioning and many couldn’t do their jobs properly without power. This was less than 2 years after 9/11 and a nervous public waited to hear what was responsible for this disaster. And then they got their answer: it was a tree. Apparently software bugs in a power plant made it so they could not properly respond to a tree in Ohio falling down and they overloaded the grid, causing this costly incident.
This incident feels like a giant neon sign that tells our adversaries “Attack Our Power Grid, It Sucks!” It highlights massive infrastructure and software vulnerabilities in the power system. If a tree falling over can create these massive problems, then you could see how lone wolf attacks on unprotected infrastructure could once again leave America in the dark. This is not to mention the cyber vulnerabilities that lie within our power grid. If even just one worker makes a mistake like falling for a phishing attempt, the entire grid could be at risk of a cyberattack that can overload the grid. With very little being done since 2003, we are still at risk of this happening again.
The scholarship agrees that there are massive physical and cyber threats to the United States power grid. The Government Technology and Services Coalition have found that there are massive physical vulnerabilities enemies could target in the power system. Physical vulnerabilities include high-voltage transformers that could be overloaded and pose a massive threat to the grid. Experts fear that a STUXNET like virus could cause a massive overloading of the grid without setting off any of the warning systems. This vulnerability comes from the fact that critical infrastructure is tied to remote control networks that are tied to a network, making a great deal of the grid vulnerable to this kind of attack (Wintch Timothy, PERSPECTIVE: Cyber and Physical Threats to the U.S. Power Grid and Keeping the Lights on).
Political leaders in America think that throwing more police in Metropolitan areas is the solution to protecting them against terrorist attacks. However, leaving our infrastructure so weak and not investing in it puts us at a massive risk that things like the police can’t stop at all. This is just kicking the can down the road until this weakness is exposed (either through accident or attack) and we will have to spend massively then on our infrastructure after this disaster.