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Norman Bernstein
12-21-2015, 10:17 AM
In the news today:


SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Security researcher Brian Wallace was on the trail of hackers who had snatched a California university's housing files when he stumbled into a larger nightmare: Cyberattackers had opened a pathway into the networks running the United States power grid.

Digital clues pointed to Iranian hackers. And Wallace found that they had already taken passwords, as well as engineering drawings of dozens of power plants, at least one with the title "Mission Critical." The drawings were so detailed that experts say skilled attackers could have used them, along with other tools and malicious code, to knock out electricity flowing to millions of homes.

Wallace was astonished. But this breach, The Associated Press has found, was not unique.

About a dozen times in the last decade, sophisticated foreign hackers have gained enough remote access to control the operations networks that keep the lights on, according to top experts who spoke only on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.

The public almost never learns the details about these types of attacks - they're rarer but also more intricate and potentially dangerous than data theft. Information about the government's response to these hacks is often protected and sometimes classified; many are never even reported to the government.

These intrusions have not caused the kind of cascading blackouts that are feared by the intelligence community. But so many attackers have stowed away in the systems that run the U.S. electric grid that experts say they likely have the capability to strike at will.

A few months back, I read Ted Koppel's book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (http://www.audible.com/pd/Science-Technology/Lights-Out-Audiobook/B0143R30SY/ref=a_listener__cco_1_1_t). I freely admit that I was a bit skeptical about it, or, at least, some of the conclusions he seemed to be reaching. However, in light of the above, perhaps I might have been a bit TOO skeptical about it. Here's my book review, on audible.com:


Virtually everyone is familiar with Ted Koppel's sonorous voice; as a presenter of many television documentaries, and as the host of the long-running current affairs program 'Nightline', he is an icon of the television journalism genre.

Unfortunately, his style translates poorly into book form. The mix of prose and poetry which makes a one hour television program flow smoothly, becomes rather oppressive, when the attempt is made to translate into book format.

The subject matter is certainly interesting: it's the proposition that the United States is poorly prepared to withstand a cyber-attack against the nation's power grid. The first 20 minutes, or so, of the audiobook presentation is occupied with the potential consequences of a prolonged and widespread power outage. Unfortunately, this occupies only a small fraction of the book, and is only lightly explored, even though it becomes apparent that a severe, prolonged loss of power over a widespread area would indeed become catastrophic.

Koppel them explores, via interviews with various experts, the methodologies by which a cyber-attacker could possibly trigger such an event. The story is something of a counterpart to the tale of 'Stuxnet', the American/Israeli cyber-attack against Iran's uranium enrichment program, in which the PLC's (programmable logic controllers) of Iranian centrifuges were infected with a highly devious worm that caused damage long before the Iranians were aware of the vulnerability.

In the case of a potential cyber-attack against the power grid, the targets would be SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Aquisition) systems, which are a more sophisticated version of the PLC's used in the Iranian enrichment program. An attack of SCADA systems could, theoretically, result in widespread power outages and would include damage to equipment (most notably, 'super-transformers') which form the backbone of our power distribution grid.

As an electrical engineer, I am familiar with both PLC and SCADA systems, although Koppel does a credible job in explaining these devices and systems in language clear enough for the average reader.

However, his cautionary tale strikes me as a bit less than convincing. While the Stuxnet worm was a demonstration of the ability of clever firmware writers to inject damaging code into these systems without detection, the same paradigm might not apply to a system as widely diverse as the American electrical power grid. The Iranian situation was much different... a far more isolated environment in which the types of equipment used, and the manner in which they were interconnected, were constrained to just a small handful of sites. In fact, the Stuxnet attack was directed at just two types of PLC's, both manufactured by a single manufacturer (Siemens). The US power grid, on the other hand, is a broad, widespread, and highly diverse system, and of necessity, contains many safeguards against the kinds of events (such as overloads) that would jeopardize the system as a whole. The US system is also based on a very wide variety of devices, from many different manufacturers.

This is not to suggest that the US system is in any way invulnerable to cyber-attack; however, the Stuxnet experience probably resulted in a little-known but undoubtedly thorough review of cyber security among all US power companies.

The validity of the premise may be controversial, and I'm not discounting the premise entirely. However, the presentation of the material, Koppel's sonorous voice notwithstanding, left me less than either satisfied, or convinced.

TomZ
12-21-2015, 10:30 AM
Yes, our power grid is exposed. This ^^, solar flares, emp. The results aren't pretty.

Gerarddm
12-21-2015, 11:18 AM
I would suspect that almost anything but an air-gapped computer is vulnerable to hackers.

skuthorp
12-21-2015, 03:14 PM
I would suspect that almost anything but an air-gapped computer is vulnerable to hackers.
Yup. One of these days we will regret committing everything to computer control. Including our personal affairs.

Norman Bernstein
12-21-2015, 03:27 PM
I still think the story is oversold. Koppel's book warned of very major attacks, the kind that would shut down the power grind over huge areas, and for weeks or months at a time.... I think that notion is science fiction. The power grid is different from Stuxnet, which was an exceptionally narrow focus on a very specific kind of control system. The national power grind, on the other hand, is quite diverse.

hokiefan
12-21-2015, 03:48 PM
I still think the story is oversold. Koppel's book warned of very major attacks, the kind that would shut down the power grind over huge areas, and for weeks or months at a time.... I think that notion is science fiction. The power grid is different from Stuxnet, which was an exceptionally narrow focus on a very specific kind of control system. The national power grind, on the other hand, is quite diverse.

Depends on how deep they can get into the system. I know that if I got into a power plant's process control system I could wreck equipment to the point that it would take 100's of millions and many months to get it operating again. The same could be done to major switchgear quite readily. Some parts of the grid aren't stable enough to withstand a whole lot of capacity or routing loss. Wouldn't take too many major power plants out to screw up a population dense area like the New York City, or Chicago.

Cheers,

Bobby

LeeG
12-21-2015, 05:18 PM
Yes, our power grid is exposed. This ^^, solar flares, emp. The results aren't pretty.

A "Carrington event"

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_1859

Solar storm of 1859

The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington event,[1] was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm in 1859 during solar cycle 10. A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. The associated "white light flare" in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by English astronomers Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson.

Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks.[9] Telegraph pylons threw sparks.[10] Some telegraph operators could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.[11]

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the US alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.[2]

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_2012

an unusually large and strong coronal mass ejection (CME) event that occurred on July 23 that year. It missed the Earth with a margin of approximately nine days, as the Earth orbits the Sun, and the Sun revolves around its own axis with a period of about 25 days.[1] The region that produced the outburst was thus not pointed directly towards the Earth at that time. The strength of the eruption was comparable to the 1859 Carrington event that caused damage to electric equipment worldwide, which at that time consisted mostly of telegraph stations.[2]

A 2013 study estimated that the economic cost to the United States would have been between $0.6 - 2.6 trillion USD.[3] Ying D. Liu, professor at China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, estimated that the recovery time from such a disaster would have been about four to ten years.