What if Russia or China Cut Off Your Electricity?

Report: China, Russia have cybersleuths who could disrupt electric grid.

April 8, 2009 — -- It is a morning five or 10 years in the future, and the headlines have been full of news about escalating tensions with Russia or China. You turn on your lights in the morning to find that they, and virtually everything else, have been shut down by cyberspies.

Improbable? Maybe -- but the Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese and Russian spies have penetrated America's electric power grid, planting software bugs that could all but shut down the system in a crisis.

"There are individuals and groups and even state organizations overseas that are working very diligently every day to be able to infiltrate our U.S. sectors," said George Foresman, a former high official of the Department of Homeland Security.

"I think the government has known for several years that China and Russia and other countries have created offensive cyberwar units and have penetrated American networks, including the electric power grid, which is pretty easy to penetrate," said Richard Clarke, a former White House cyber security adviser and an ABC News consultant, on "Good Morning America."

The Chinese and Russian embassies in Washington deny any wrongdoing. And the electric industry, overseen by a group called the North American Electric Reliability Corp., says, "Industry leaders are taking steps in the right direction to improve preparedness and response to potential cyberthreats."

This is not an immediate threat, said security officials who asked not to be named, but they say more needs to be done to protect Americans' electricity.

Start at Home

So what would all this mean to you? If another country actually tried to take down part of the power grid, what would your day be like?

Your day might very well start late -- simply because your alarm clock is electric. You turn on your laptop to go online for information -- but while the laptop has a battery, the wireless router that gets you onto the Web may not.

The phone works, since most telephone networks are not powered by local utilities -- but can you get through to the people you want to reach? The voice signal for more and more calls travels over the Internet, and the Internet was what the cybersleuths used to shut down electric power. You may be able to call long distance but not locally. Or the reverse.

Everywhere you look, you find proof of the old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You take a shower, for instance, by window light. The water is still clean, since the treatment plant near you has backup power, but if your home has electric heat, you gradually may find yourself running low on hot water.

A Cyber Attack on the Power Grid?

You have a gas stove. That should work, right? Wrong -- it has an electric starter. A generation ago there would have been a pilot light burning all the time.

"This goes directly to the issue of how pervasive electricity is, in ways we never imagined a generation ago," said James Owen of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents power companies in Washington. "We are at the mercy of the very devices we use to make our lives more convenient."

The Outside World

You head outside -- and find traffic a mess. Very few cities or towns have backup power for traffic lights.

Your car works fine, and radio stations, on backup power, are running constant bulletins. But did you fill up your tank last night? The gas stations can't pump anything.

The grocery store is dark, and harried clerks are worried that food will go bad without refrigeration. The cash registers are out too. But if past blackouts are any indication, people are banding together to help each other out. If you can't pay by credit card, the store may take an old-fashioned paper IOU.

Air traffic, said the FAA, would not be in danger: "The whole system is based on redundancies," said the FAA's Paul Takemoto.

Of course, getting to and from airports would be a more frustrating issue, and power in terminal buildings might be limited. It would not be a good day to fly.

Wall Street has backup power, which allows stock prices to tumble in the crisis. When will the power come back on?

"Think of this," said Michael Markulec of Lumeta, an Internet security firm in New Jersey. "You take your valuables, and you put them in a safe deposit box in a bank, where they have all sorts of security systems. We're not protecting our cyberassets the way we protect our physical assets."

The Grid Is Connected to the Net

The problem, in our technologically advanced society, is that the electric system, some of it based on power plants that are decades old, is increasingly controlled over the Internet, which security people said makes it vulnerable.

A Cyber Attack on the Power Grid?

"Our control systems are relatively old," said Markulec. "While certain portions of the electric network are redundant, there are certain choke points. That's what someone would attack.

"In the cybersecurity world, things like credit cards, insurance and so forth have started to harden," he said. "But the same thing isn't being done for our public infrastructure."

The intruders, whoever they are, have not tried to damage the power system or other key infrastructure, and no particular area or site was targeted, said sources cited by the Journal.

Nobody may be trying to cut power now, say engineers, but they say there is the ongoing problem of an aging power grid, controlled by a less-than-secure Internet. And regular people are caught in the middle.

So you're back home in the evening, using flashlights and candles, and you open your laptop again to see if you can get any updates. But the battery is low, and finally the machine shuts down, which means that for the most mundane of reasons, you cannot read the end of this sto...