The news is full of frightening news about hurricanes, Ebola, global warming, and pretty much any disaster you can think of. Yes, these are real threats to our security but almost no one is talking about the threat which could devastate the entire country and take over a decade to recover from: an attack on our electric grid.
ISIS Hacking the Grid
Last October, US law enforcement agencies met with American energy firms to discuss national security. They revealed that ISIS has attempted to hack into the electric grid. The FBI didn’t reveal any specific details. John Riggi, a section chief at the FBI cyber division, only said of it that ISIS has “strong intent” but “low capability.”
Luckily, ISIS hasn’t been successful — yet. They currently lack the infrastructure required to hack into the grid. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get it. Hacking software is for sale on the black market. ISIS has a huge amount of funds at their disposal that they could use to easily purchase this software.
If ISIS were able to organize a coordinated attack, it could leave the United States without power. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it is much more than just our lights and internet which are reliant on the power grid. If the power grid were to fail, so could utilities like sewage treatment plants. Communication systems are also reliant on the grid, so agencies would be hard pressed to talk to each other to get the systems going again. Americans would be suddenly left without clean water, without refrigeration, without heat. There would be no more food being delivered to grocery stores.
In short, the effects would be catastrophic.
It Isn’t Just ISIS Who Could Take Down the Grid
While the news that ISIS is actively trying to take down our electric grid is concerning, it isn’t them that we should really be worried about.
Russian malware has already been found in systems at energy companies. We know that Iran and North Korea also have these capabilities.
An even more disconcerting threat is Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. An EMP blast would not just take out the electric grid, but would also likely destroy most electronic devices. Modern cars which run on circuits wouldn’t work anymore. Backup generators would be fried. Even flashlights could be affected. You can forget about your laptop and cellphone working.
There are multiple types of EMP. One type of EMP occurs as a result of a nuclear blast. Luckily, it is very difficult for countries (even strong enemies like Iran) to pull off a nuclear attack. However, it would be easy for them to make an EMP weapon and emit it off the coast of the USA. There would be no obvious physical damage as from a bomb, but the grid would be fried and the effects arguably worse than that of a bomb. The USA already has an EMP weapon and leaked documents from Iran talk of plans to hit the USA with EMP.
Another type of EMP comes from a natural source: a solar flare. You can read more about what solar flares are and the risk here. Just like with an EMP weapon, the effects would be devastating.
The Entire Grid is Vulnerable
A 2013 survey found more than 500,000 potential targets for cyberattacks in the USA. These include power stations, water treatment centers, and various other parts of the electric grid.
All parts of the grid could be hit, no matter the condition. However, the US grid is particularly vulnerable because of its age. A report by the National Governors Association found that 70% of the transmission lines and transformers in the US are at least 25 years old. 60% of circuit breakers are at least 30 years old. Since much of the grid was designed in the 1950s (before cyberhacking and EMP were considered threats), the system is very vulnerable.
Why Is Nothing Being Done?
Last May, Senator Peter Fry of the National Force on National and Homeland Security testified before congress about the looming threat of EMP and said EMP could kill 9 out of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal unrest. He isn’t the only one speaking out about the risk. Former CIA director and spy Valerie Plame warned that modern life in America could be wiped out for 18 months. A recent article in Market Watch called it one of the “four biggest geopolitical risks in 2016.”
Some bills have been introduced into congress with the goal of updating the grid to protect it from EMP and cyberattacks. Yet, these bills have all fallen flat.
Despite the very real risk, absolutely NOTHING has been done to protect the grid.
There are two main reasons why this threat is overwhelmingly being ignored.
- It isn’t being taken seriously
- Political influence of power companies
As for the threat being taken seriously, you only need to read the few mainstream news articles which talk about EMP or cyberattacks on the grid. In the CNN article about ISIS attacking the grid, they dismissed the risk by saying that ISIS is “bad” at it and it is “not likely” for a major grid attack to occur. When Senator Santorum and Ben Carson talked about EMP during a recent GOP debate, they were laughed at the next day by the likes of Vanity Fair and popular media. One media outlet even called it “the most hilarious security threat.” It reminds you of how people thought that Pearl Harbor wasn’t likely, and no one could have dreamt that 9/11 would have occurred.
As for political influence, it is disconcerting that the power companies are making it hard for any changes to the grid to go through. When Congresswoman Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Delaware tried to initiate legislature to upgrade the grid, she ran up against strong industry opposition.
“There is a reticence on the part of the utility companies, and in Florida, they are very politically powerful,” said Vasilinda.
Representative Andrea Boland says, “the feds don’t seem to be getting anything done. We need to protect the states so that a terrible event wouldn’t be able to keep the grid down for months or years.” She goes on to say that, despite how the power companies make it sound, upgrading the grid wouldn’t be exorbitantly expensive. It would only cost about $1.50 per household per year over 4 or 5 years to make the upgrades to keep us safe.
The good news is that states have regulatory authority over the grid and its distribution systems. That means they could require all power companies to install devices to protect against EMP from attacks or solar flares. It is just a matter of them actually doing it…
Until then, patriots and anyone who cares about the security of their selves and family should take steps to prepare for EMP.