What if Russia or China Cut Off Your Electricity?

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

ByABC News
April 8, 2009, 9:26 AM

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.

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.