“Is that an apocalypse fiction novel you’re reading?”
“No, it’s Ted Koppel’s New York Times bestseller “Lights Out”.
“Oh, same thing.”
Lights Out begins as an ominous description of an America without power and what would happen without, not only our modern day creature comforts such as cell phones and TVs, but more importantly, without waste water removal, heat, or air conditioning that we all take for granted. The books stands to reason that these marvels of technology that we have come to rely on could be in grave danger. What’s more, our actual infrastructure that we also rely on: our air traffic control, rail, communications, and healthcare systems could be in peril, as well, should an individual or group ever successfully hack the electrical grid on which they depend.
Evident from the onset: Ted Koppel did his homework for Lights Out (what else would you expect from an eight time George Foster Peabody award winner), including data, facts, and in-depth interviews from the DOE, NSA, FEMA, TSA, and Dept. of Homeland Security. The competition for the delivery electricity is good for customers (if by some strange instance the company delivering power actually passes the operational savings on to the customers), but it actually makes for a much more vulnerable system. Lights Out points out the absurdity of confusing and conflicting state, federal, and industrial conflicts, regulations, and legal loopholes.
It would be hard to keep politics out of this conversation also. A glaring question that occurred throughout the first few chapters is: do we want cheaper energy prices or more security and government oversight of the electric grid? The answer of which depends on where your beliefs lie. Chapter 3 “Regulation Gridlock” explains the battle between federal agencies such as the congressional Cyberspace Caucus and NSA tasked with keeping the US electric grid safe and the actual industrial players in charge of defending the deregulation of electricity. Koppel further reveals a truly alarming disparity between top officials at the same agencies; Individuals that are supposed to be on the same page, but clearly of different opinions when it comes to the capabilities of their agency’s ability to protect the grid.
So is it responsible to point out glaring security flaws? That’s part of journalism, however, keep in mind Koppel doesn’t teach you how to hack a SCADA System, but just points out it’s possible for a willing and determined actor. Lights Out also mentions the infamous Stuxnet virus released on unknowing Siemens PLC’s, in order to undermine Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment, a portion of these systems are also used in the US electric grid.
Lights Out expertly crafts a visualization of how much we’ve come to depend on the internet any yet how little we understand or acknowledge the inherent dangers that come with it. According to some a “not if, but when” mentality exist surrounding the possibility of a cyber-attack against our infrastructure. Koppel is actually able to get an anonymous senior executive from a nation’s leading power company to go on record as saying it is a completely real possibility for hacker’s to cause havoc on the US power grid, albeit not on the size and scale of an entire grid.
In another superb demonstration of the author’s attempt to paint a complete picture, he meets with top insurance executives to draw the conclusion that while some individuals believe a crippling industrial cyber-attack isn’t likely, the insurance companies that are paid to calculate risks aren’t willing to be against. The 2012 White House advisor on cyber security, Howard Schmitt, when asked if the government could guarantee a cyber-attack would not knock out the power grid answered, “Absolutely not”. On a reassuring note, the greatest actors with the means to carry out an attack on our energy grid are China and Russia, which both have a vested interest in America not losing power for an extended period of time. Not so assuring, is that Iran, North Korea, and individual actors such as terrorist or criminal organizations enjoy a less connect dependence of the US System.
Ted Koppel has written Lights Out just like he reported for so many years….with responsible depth and an expert daft at drumming up interesting, qualified, and colorful sources. He uncovers the brutal fact that if a large metropolitan area were to need to be evacuated, no real plan exists, or if it does, no one at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is familiar with it. In essence, cyber-attack is “bundled into the same category as blizzards, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes”. So is the US Power grid able to withstand the onslaught of a major cyber-attack? That depends on who you ask: the Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security thinks so, not all of FEMA’s higher ups, such as Joe Nimmich, are convinced that it is.
Out of all the disasters that could occur a cyber-attack that plunges the Eastern Seaboard into darkness seems to me like it could be more plausible than a Tsunami or a Hurricane doing so, yet the population and government alike are woefully unprepared. Perhaps then “preppers” (individuals that go to any lengths to make sure they are prepared for any of life’s uncertainties) despite they’re mockery, might have the last laugh? I enjoyed Koppel’s natural analogy of these modern day preppers for impending doom to that of Noah from the Old Testament (actually learned a little new information about this famous biblical tale as well). Of course for those with the right combination of fear and money, you can invest in a luxury bomb shelter in a decommissioned missile silo located in Kansas for between 1.5 and 3 million dollars. In fact, faced with the prospect of having properly prepared for a disaster, but interacting with others who aren’t, brings to light the interesting question of how far hospitality goes in the event of a long term crisis.
Lights Out also offers an informative look into what could be considered the official “prepper religion”, the Mormons, who by a matter of doctrine, regularly plan for the tribulation which makes them the most prepared in the event of natural disasters. The Mormon Church, Lights Out reveals, is a 15 million strong, global organization with a remarkable intricate disaster plan in place. Furthermore, in a shining example of self-reliance, the Mormon Church operates a massive agricultural complex that churns out millions of pounds of food and produce for both charity and storage each year. In an enormous operation that outshines the federal government’s ability or efficiency, it’s clear that if there was a long term electricity outage in the US (or any other disaster for that matter) the Church of Latter-Day Saints is certainly prepared. This, however, doesn’t bring much solace to those members who dwell in cities without the means to build their own food storage or fallout shelter.
The silver lining for the threat of a cyber-attack on our electric grid is that the vulnerability is recognized by people both in the government and the private industry (even though not unilaterally). The Obama administration for example established the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center (CTIIC) in February 2015 in an effort to more readily share information amount different private and government entities. The main controversy with protecting privately owned parts of our electrical infrastructure is the balance between privately and security or as Ted Koppel puts it “paranoia or prudence”.