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How Vulnerable Is the Power Grid? Less Than Some Fear, Experts Say

How Vulnerable Is the Power Grid? Less Than Some Fear, Experts Say
How Vulnerable Is the Power Grid? Less Than Some Fear, Experts Say

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By Bobby Ghosh 
April 15, 2009

The attack could come when we're most vulnerable =E2=80=94 a blistering hot July 
afternoon or a freezing cold January night. Suddenly, vast sections of 
the U.S. power grid go black. The lights go out, air-conditioning (or 
heating) shuts down. Once it becomes clear that this is no temporary 
brownout, the public begins to panic. At the power utilities, engineers 
can't understand why the network shut off, and can't get it to start up 
again. It's hours before the truth emerges: a terrorist group (or a 
hostile country, or some evil-genius hacker) has broken into the 
computer networks that control the power grid, bringing the U.S. to its 

If that worst-case scenario crossed your mind last week, it was probably 
because you'd just read news reports that federal authorities had 
detected signs that hackers =E2=80=94 likely from Russia and China, countries 
with militaries known to be pursuing cyberwarfare capabilities =E2=80=94 had 
penetrated the computer systems that control the power grid. It was 
unclear when these intrusions had taken place, but they had left a 
software signature. If that wasn't disturbing enough, the North American 
Electric Reliability Corp., a Congress-authorized regulator, issued an 
alert that the utilities had not adequately surveyed their computer 
systems to detect vulnerabilities. (Read "Can We Prevent Another 

As bad as all that may sound, there are several reasons not to panic 
about our power grid's vulnerability.

* No national power grid anywhere in the world has been brought down by 
  a cyberattack. And it's worth keeping in mind that most countries have 
  much fewer defenses from cyberattacks than the U.S. "It's virtually 
  impossible to bring down the entire North American grid," says Major 
  General (Rtd) Dale Meyerrose, a cybersecurity expert who recently 
  retired as chief information officer for the Director of National 
  Intelligence. The electricity-distribution system is highly 
  decentralized, and there's no central control system; at worst, 
  cyberattackers may be able to damage sections of the grid.


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