The Pentagon Causes a Widespread Power Outage

For years spy masters have stridently 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 attack 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.”

This week 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 the directors of energy companies up at night, aren’t cyber threats. The truly serious threats are physical. 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 openly concedes. 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 descriptions of doomsday, and all that bloviating about cyber threats to the power grid, doesn’t it? The stark contrast between hypothetical scenarios and hard evidence raises questions. Like why is the American 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. In the throes of an alleged crisis anxious people aren’t particular about a solution as long as it’s presented as a precautionary measure; they don’t care much about the cost. 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 at stake as the Patriot Act and FISA Amendment Act of 2008 highlight.

By taking cybergeddon and treating it as if it were “imminent,” society is lured into a logic-free zone dominated by emotion rather than reason. This puts the economic and political imperatives of a small group of economically privileged individuals before our own. Though there are many kinds of insurance (e.g. health, house, car, hurricane, earth quake, life, disability) this doesn’t mean you should go out and buy all of them. A savvy consumer buys insurance strategically; and there are prices that clear-headed people won’t pay.

Bill Blunden is a journalist whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including “The Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs and a member of the California State University Employees Union, Chapter 305.