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Risk of Cyber Warfare Attack on Power Grids

In today’s society, we have become accustomed to the advancing of new technology in order to keep up with our everyday lives. It is almost impossible to function in the world today without the use of technology. The advancements in technology, allows individuals to communicate with one another, move ahead in their careers, and complete assignments for school, among other things. Technology has to advance in order to keep up with growing industrialization, but due to the rapid advancement, technology is getting too far ahead of our ability to make sure that private information is secure, and so cyber hacking could become an issue. Hacking into companies and stealing credit card numbers, along with personal information has already occurred around the world. There have been more and more cases of hacking in the United States, so it is important to look at the larger picture. The power grids in the United States are what allow individuals to enjoy technology advancements, and without them, the world would completely shut down. There should be more government funding to protect our power grids through cyber security to prevent hackers from causing coast to coast blackouts affecting school, work and health environments, day to day tasks, and obtaining stealing information.

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Power grids keep the United States functioning, but they are at major risk. Most companies along with national associations are using computer networks to run essential systems. Computer networks are more susceptible to hacking, making this a very real fear to many.  So far, there are no proven tests to show that the securities of these grids are safe and unable to be hacked into, which raises many questions. As stated in Principles of Cyber-warfare, “The cyber world, as an artificial construct of humans, is imperfect. It can and does change in ways that seem chaotic. Software fails; hardware fails, programs run faster than expected, and a thousand other variations cause the unpredictability of the cyber world” (Parks). Without the ensured safety of these grids and the possibility of attack, everything powered by this source is in jeopardy. Without proper funds, power grids are susceptible to a country-wide cyber attack, an attack so catastrophic, it would leave the United States in the dark for days, or even months.

Ensured safety of power grids became a very important topic to discuss between government officials and engineers after the blackout that occurred on August 14, 2003. Although this blackout was not caused by cyber-warfare or hacking, many of the devastating results from this blackout would be very similar to the aftermath of a cyber-war on the United States power grids. On August 14, 2003 areas of the Midwest and Northeast United States, along with Canada, suffered from a blackout that caused many people to be without power for days (Abraham). According to the U.S.-Canada Power System Task Force, “The outage affected an area with an estimated 50 million people and 61,800 megawatts (MW) of electric load in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and the Canadian province of Ontario” (Abraham). This outage only affected certain states, so just think of the amount of devastation that would occur if the whole power grid system crashed due to hacking, would be unimaginable. Protecting our power grids deserves immediate attention, and requires proper funding from the government to ensure that the system is well protected against a potential cyber attack.

If power grids were to crash due to hacking, all 50 states would be at risk as well as Canada. The United State’s main source of power comes from these grids, which are set in place all around the country. Stated in, The Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout, “This electricity infrastructure represents more than $1 trillion (U.S.) in asset value, more than 200,000 miles of transmission lines operating at 230,000 volts and greater, 950,000 megawatts of generating capability, and nearly 3,500 utility organizations serving well over 100 million customers and 283 million people” (Abraham). Power grids keep the nation functioning and it is the government’s obligation to put the required funds and effort in, to test and improve through upgrades the security of such grids.

Many people are unaware how power grids keep the nation functioning, let alone, how they work. Telephone wires are what carry electric currents to and from places. The electricity in these wires is first produced in power plants, then travel to substations, which splits the electricity off in multiple directions. After being split, electricity passes through switch towers and travels between wires on telephone poles (Brain). There are three big national power grids, one grid in the western portion of the country, another in the eastern half, and the last one located in Texas (Smith). With the possibility of power grids being hacked due to rapidly changing technology, it is important to focus on ways to protect this system, or else another blackout will not just be affecting a few homes, but everyone across the United States and Canada. As stated in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations” (Smith). Only nine substations could be detrimental to the country, causing an extreme blackout. With more government funding it could be ensured that if an attack were to occur, it wouldn’t be because the government failed to provide sufficient funds and lacked preparation.

In order to fully understand what is at risk if there was a cyber-warfare attack on the United States power grids, it is important to look at individual aspects that power grids supply. One element in particular, that would be affected if power was lost, would be the working environment. Millions of people are employed throughout the United States, and most people rely on one form of technology in order to do their job. According to a Wall Street Journal article, “Advancements in technology — most notably the proliferation the past few years of high-speed Internet access in homes, cafes, airports and other locations — has made the increase of telecommuting, or teleworking, possible and much easier than in the past” (Rhoads). Without power, the technology used to make working more efficient would be inaccessible, meaning; people would simply not be able to work. Programs used online, would not work, along with the use of email for communication. There would be no way for business members to communicate without email, or telephone and video conferences. The loss of power would not only affect companies across the country, but the government as well.

The President of the United States, along with other government officials depend on the phone calls, emails, Skype, and other forms of technology to communicate with foreign leaders. In recent weeks, the crisis in Ukraine has exploded into a larger issue, causing the President to make phone calls to other foreign leaders to discuss their options. When becoming a leader it is important to know how to work with advancing technology and, “when it comes to communicating with world leaders, it is a technology developed in the 19th century that still rules. The telephone remains a dominant tool of international diplomacy in a world where many nations lack America’s more recent technological advances” (Knox).  The American People would not be able to work, production would grind to a halt and everyone would lose money, which would affect the economy. If the President was not able to communicate with other leaders, it would hurt the government and affect foreign affairs. The safety of our power grids is very important, without them, jobs and foreign affairs could be in jeopardy. If more government funds were focused towards the security of our power grids, American jobs, and foreign affairs would not be so vulnerable nor would the economy.

In addition to working, schools and universities would also be negatively affected by a cyber attack on the United State’s power grids. As technology advances, so do the ways that schools and universities are run. Many schools and universities rely on programs accessible through the internet to complete assignments and keep up with courses, as well as check grades. Without the use of electricity, completing these tasks would be nearly impossible. Professors and teachers use these programs to teach their classes, and as a way to communicate with students, along with other facility members. All student records are kept on a file online, which is more convenient. However, without a back up system, all files would be lost and therefore, unattainable, possibly forever.

With technological advancements it is very rare to see students taking notes with pen and paper, but rather on a computer. Most professors and teachers do not write the lecture notes on the board anymore, but already have the notes typed out on the computer to be displayed to the class with a projector. The advancement of technology has made learning environments very convenient, and more efficient. It is hard to imagine what would happen if the power were to go out, and generators did not kick in. Learning would come to a complete stop, and it would take time before schools and universities would be able to run smoothly and properly again.

If the power were to simply go out because of an attack it is hard to determine whether keeping students at a university, or school would be safe or not. It would take time for teachers to rearrange lesson plans, so time would be lost for students to learn required materials. There would be great debate on whether or not children should go to school when there is no power, and no food was being prepared for lunches. Children who graduated from high school and go to college are expected to live on campus or commute. Dining halls would be unable to provide meals for the students, and grocery stores would cease to function. Not only would there be an issue with providing meals, but also where students are expected to live.

Colleges are known for using “peds” to acquire access to dorm halls. These “peds” require electricity to work, so without it, students are unable to get into dormitories, not to mention using the stairwells up to their rooms. In order to get into the building, someone has to let you in from the inside. Trying to get into the stairwells without using “peds” is impossible. There is no backup system, using a lock and key, so yet again, someone from the upper floor has to come down and open the door. Electricity is overall essential in running an efficient university and school, and without it, everything would come to halt. Many of these suggestions may seem irrational, but it is important to understand just how much is truly at risk if the securities of our power grids are neglected. With so much at risk, it is extremely important for more government funding to be directed towards the securities of these grids all around the country.

Schools and working environments would suffer from the loss of electricity from an attack on our power grids, but hospitals would suffer immensely if all electricity was lost. Hospitals function because of electricity, all of the equipment needs electricity to run and electricity is needed to provide a safe environment for both the workers and the patients. Without the use of electricity, patients would not survive. Patients that have been in the hospital, and require immediate surgery, or need to be hospitalized in intensive care for example, would die. Without electricity there is no way that hospitals would be able to save lives using the equipment that required electricity. Hospitals around the country have experienced incidents where power went out and back up generators failed. One hospital in particular, New York University Langone Medical Center, “had to evacuate all 215 of its patients when its power went out and both of its backup systems didn’t work. Staff had to hand pump oxygen to critically ill patients until patients could be taken by ambulance to another hospital” (Ornstein). In this case, those hospitals were able to transfer those patients to surrounding health care facilities, which had working equipment and the available space.

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The above example is but one hospital, one example. Now imagine a coast to coast blackout due to an attack on our power grids. Hospitals would not be able to transfer patients because power would be out all over the country, and if there were a gas shortage, commuting would be impossible. Patients would not be able to survive without working equipment, as patient files are kept online. As seen in schools and universities, all filing is kept online. The loss of electricity would result in the loss of personal patient information with no backup system. The loss of electricity would result in numerous sacrifices, including losing lives. Government officials need to recognize the potential losses, and invest more funding into securing and defending our power grids.

In addition to school, work and health environments, day to day tasks would be impossible without electricity. The basic flip of a light switch would not work, along with running water, heat, and cooking foods, the basic necessities for human beings. When the power goes out, many people are without electricity for up to a few hours or a couple days, however, many people also have generators. An attack on our power grids would cause electricity to go out, and generators would likely not work or work for long. This would mean that cooking food using the microwave, or stove would not work. Foods would not be able to be kept cold using the refrigerator, and the simplicity of flipping a light switch would be gone. Internet, television, laundry, phone services, cooking food, heating/cooling among other things would be a thing of the past. All of this combined would be a huge loss for the American and Canadian people and should not be something that should be allowed to occur just because of the lack of funding to protect our basic way of life.

Using appliances and taking care of basic needs in the home would be lost if power were to go out, but a major issue that American’s and Canadian’s would have to face would be gas pumps. Gas is needed for day to day tasks and if power were to go out, pumping gas would no longer work. This means that while school, work, and health environments would be disrupted in a major way, there would also be no way to commute back and forth to these facilities. Cars would not run without gas, leaving people stranded and unable to get to and from places. People would have to resort to walking, and seeing family across the country or even a couple of hours away would be near impossible. As technology advances, it is easy to become accustomed to the new changes, adapting to new things. To lose everything that comes with electricity, because funding to protect our security was not addressed, is simply outrageous, and a fault of the people elected for office.

There are specific reasons why electricity is important in order to keep the United States and Canada functioning and are prominent in understanding why a secure system is needed to protect our power grids. Hacking to obtain private information is already an issue in the United States as well as all over the world and it is only a matter of time before hackers attack something bigger, causing more devastation, such as our power grids. This past year Target, a major company worldwide was hacked, and customer credit card information was stolen. According to CNN, “The company said Friday that 70 million customers had information such as their name, address, phone number and e-mail address hacked in the breach” (Isidore). For this company, the result of cyber-hacking was massive. Either one hacker or a group of hackers were able to get inside the system, and as a result seventy million customer’s information was stolen. When something like this occurs, especially for companies, it is hard to convince the customers that it is safe to continue shopping with them. Many people may not want to continue shopping at Target stores due to their personal information being stolen. Hacking is not a rare occurrence, hacking goes on everyday; it is sometimes just so small, that it goes unseen or unreported. In order to prevent these situations from happening, more money needs to be put into place to protect these vulnerable systems.

Some people may argue that government funds are not needed and should not be needed to protect our power grids. Government officials may argue that due to budget cuts, the protection of our power grids is one thing that they can afford to avoid right now. People may believe that our government funds should be used to towards things like military security, employment, and health care costs. This is a valid point, because up until now there have not been any major issues with our cyber security. While other things may seem more important, it is only a matter of time before cyber warfare becomes a major issue, if not, a detrimental issue.

Cyber security is growing, and because of the severity of its consequences, it is critical that this problem is taken care of as soon as possible. According to The Department of Homeland Security, “They investigated over 200 serious cyber attacks against critical facilities during the first half of 2013, and more than half of these targeted the grid” (Finnigan). This goes to show that there have already been attempts at attacking our power grids, and the time to start doing something, is now. Government officials need to stop doing the bare minimum at protecting our grids, and start doing everything they can. John Finnigan, a representative of the Environmental Defense Fund states, “Our leaders must ensure that federal budget cuts do not impair the Department of Energy’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s means to protect our nation’s critical energy infrastructure from cyber attacks” (Finnigan). This means that while budget cuts are happening, important investments cannot, and should not be swept under the rug.

U.S. Representatives, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey agree with John Finnigan and say, “Our nation’s power grid is under constant cyber attack” (Finnigan). Waxman and Markey both agree and realize that this is a growing and serious issue for the United States. Both parties believe that there is no time to waste in protecting our power grid, and the government needs to put more time and effort into ensuring the grids security. Ben Franklin also agrees with the above statements of Markey, Waxman, and Finnigan and states, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail” (Finnigan). When failing to make necessary accommodations for important government procedures, the plan will automatically fail, before it even starts. Government funds are needed in order to practice safe testing and practice attacks on our power grids in order to prepare for the day that involves a real attack. With more government funds, there would be more ways to test whether or not our grids are secure, preventing a real attack when it did occur.

The security of these power grids is essential for the United States to keep functioning. Without more government funds, an extreme cyber attack is possible, and within that attack everything that we as human beings have become accustomed to with the advancement of technology will be lost. The simplicities of turning on a light switch, having running water, heat, and even cooking food would be lost. Information would be stolen, and the world would simply go dark. The time to do something about protecting our security is now, not after the fact when things are too damaged to be repaired. Government funds are needed, security is needed, and most of all our power grids are needed in order to sustain our way of life and our happiness.

Works Cited

  • Abraham, Spencer, and John R. Efford. “Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout.” U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force. U.S.-Canada Power System Task Force, Apr. 2004. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. <https://www.ferc.gov>.
  • Brain, Marshall. “How Power Grids Work.” How Power Grids Work. N.p., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. <http://fgamedia.org>.
  • Finnigan, John. “The U.S. Power Grid’s Cyber War Games.” Energy Exchange. Environmental Defense Fund, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. <http://blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2013/10/28/the-u-s-power-grids-cyber-war-games/>.
  • Isidore, Chris. “Target: Hacking Hit up to 110 Million Customers.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <http://money.cnn.com/2014/01/10/news/companies/target-hacking/>.
  • Knox, Olivier. “How a Presidental Phone Call Gets Made.” Yahoo News, 17 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://news.yahoo.com/how-the-president-makes-a-phone-call-212133128.html>.
  • Ornstein, Charles. “Donate.” Top Stories RSS. N.p., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.propublica.org/article/why-do-hospitals-generators-keep-failing>.
  • Parks, Raymond C., and David P. Duggan. “Principles of Cyber-warfare.” Information on Assurance and Security. United States Military Academy, 5 June 2001. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu>.
  • Rhoads, Christopher, and Sara Silver. “Working At Home Gets Easier.” Wall Street Journal Online. Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec. 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://iiret.com/Library/wsj_2005_12_29.pdf>.
  • Smith, Rebecca. “U.S Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack.” Wall Street Journal (n.d.): n. pag. 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://online.wsj.com/news/articles>.

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