Forget network back doors and presidential hysteria about certain countries. The biggest threat to the USA, or any other country that thinks it is leading the free world, will probably not come from an attack on the internet, military or corporate networks, but something far simpler and far more potent that will have the ability to bring any nation to its knees.
You know, the stuff that powers anything and everything so essential for human life. It runs our computers, our homes, our cities, our networks, a growing number of our cars and, most importantly, our personal information devices and the broader internet of things.
Over the weekend, chaos and hysteria broke out in Target stores across the US as an alleged technical glitch triggered register outages. The Huffington Post reported that “the outage only lasted for about two hours, according to the spokeswoman, but shoppers on social media compared the inconvenience to an end-of-the-world event.” Just think, if the inability to buy something in a retail outlet caused so much discomfort and angst, what would happen if everything stopped working?
Well, another bizarre incident that also occurred over the weekend could give us a clue. All of Argentina and Uruguay and parts of Paraguay and Chile went dark after a massive electrical failure left them without electricity on Sunday. Initial reports claimed the blackout was prompted by a failure in an electrical grid that serves both Argentina and Uruguay. Later reports citing “official sources” said that the outage was linked to a failure in the transmission of electricity from the Yacycretá hydroelectric dam.
The BBC reported that Argentina’s Energy Minister, Gustavo Lopetegui, insisted that the country’s electrical system was “very robust,” but added that the exact cause of this failure was unclear. “At the moment we’re not ruling out any possibility. But we don’t think it is down to a cyberattack,” he told reporters.
Ah, and there lies the big question. What if it was a cyberattack? What if those South American countries were ‘selected’ by some dubious hackers or state-led authority to see what effect it would have in preparation for a future blitz on a bigger target? And was it coincidence that it happened one day before general elections in Argentina? Could it have been scheduled to target the incumbent government?
Now, I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories but it sort of makes sense to do a practice run on countries that are not necessarily able to find the source of the issue or fight back, even if they did and could. They are far enough away from a particular super power to not cause concern but close enough to prove a point.
Without power, the areas affected were bought to a virtual standstill because nothing worked – railways, traffic lights, petrol pumps, elevators, water pumps, security systems, burglar alarms, refrigerators, phone networks, wi-fi, etc. etc. This was a relatively short outage but what if it went for days, weeks or even months? How long before society would break down completely and mass hysteria set in? And how easy would it then be for attack or invasion by a foreign power?
Unlike military or nuclear attacks, the national infrastructure would be kept relatively intact and the people saved as potential workers in the new order. OK, I’m starting to get into the realms of a Tom Clancy novel, but you get my gist, and it is possible!
According to a study in 2014 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the entire US power grid could be shut down in a matter of minutes through a small-scale attack on nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations. In 2014, USA Today stated that about once every four days, part of the nation’s power grid — a system whose failure could leave millions in the dark — is struck by a cyber or physical attack. Common Sense Home even published a preparedness guide in 2016 titled “When the Power Grid Fails – 10 Things You Need to Prepare”. Smart people. In 2017, Wired reported that hackers gained access to US power grid controls.
Earlier this week the NY Times reported that the United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively.
If you think this will never happen where you live, you might want to think again. If you think you could cope without electricity for more than 24 hours try it, I dare you. Most of us would probably become deranged psychotics before the day was over.
Maybe, just maybe, governments should divert their attention briefly away from unsubstantiated telecommunications network infrastructure threats and concentrate on something with much greater potential for disruption to national wellbeing and security – power!