This is how it happens: A half-hour after sunset the lights start to go out. The operator in the power plant notices that he can’t control the cursor on his computer screen. He is locked out and his password is changed. The call center at the utility is blocked by thousands of fake calls. The backup generators go down. Malware installed on the operating center computers and a system wipes the disks and renders the computers useless. The power in the power control system goes off and the operators themselves are in darkness.
Is this a sci-fi plot or fantasy? Or is this the first major cyberattack on a public utility? According to a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was the latter, and it happened at 3:30 in the afternoon last Dec. 23 in western Ukraine.
“It was sophisticated,” according to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) “It was well-planned. And it was devastating. Within a few minutes, 230,000 people in the country of Ukraine were without power. That attack could have occurred in Kansas City, in San Jose, in New York, or here in Washington.”
King says every public official involved with intelligence and national security has repeatedly warned senators that such an attack on U.S. infrastructure is not just “possible.”
“It is likely,” King says. “How many shots across our bow, how many warning shots do we have to endure?”
But King says there is a kernel of good news associated with the attack. The power outage lasted for only six hours, mostly because the Ukrainian system still had old-fashioned analogue switches that a human being could use to get it back on line.
King says the U.S. system is more digital and automated and, as a result, is more vulnerable. King says in the short term the answer may be that “going back to the future” could reduce risk to the U.S. electrical grid.
Legislation King has introduced with other Intelligence Committee members tasks federal research labs with working with utilities over the next two years to determine whether returning to analogue switches at critical points in the grid can protect the system. “Going back to the past and simplifying some of these critical connection points may be the best protection that we can have,” King says.
King says Intelligence Committee members are urging Senate leaders to move the bill “at the speed of a cyberattack,” meaning before the upcoming recess July 15.
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