Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Forget hackers: Squirrels are a bigger threat to America's power grid

Who needs fancy military-grade equipment when nimble legs and sharp incisors will do?

America: Meet your match.

While American lawmakers and security officials repeatedly warn of a catastrophic cyberattack that will cripple the nation's power grids, in reality, squirrels and tree branches are proving more troublesome than hackers when it comes to actual power outages.

According to numerous reports and headlines: America's power grid is "too vulnerable to cyberattack;" thousands will die if terrorists attack the grid; cyber attacks could keep America in the dark for nine to 18 months; and electric companies face "daily" cyber attacks, which over a month can build to 10,000.

With cyber security so abysmal, incentive so high, and attacks constant, why hasn't there been a massive hacker-triggered power failure yet? Simply put, because it's not that easy.

To be clear, attacks on the power grid would be disastrous and there are significant gaps that must be addressed — procedures improved, vulnerabilities patched, software updated — but even with these glaring weaknesses, an ordinary hacker wouldn't be able to take down the electrical grid. Turning America's lights off remotely is a complex operation that requires not only hacking expertise but an array of intelligence and analysis — something only the most sophisticated terrorist organizations or nation states can muster.

Take one of the grid's greatest cyber vulnerabilities, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software. It allows utility companies to remotely monitor and control facilities, which has the unfortunate consequence of also giving hackers the ability to sabotage the grid from afar.

While terrifying in theory, cyber security expert Bruce Schneier explains that SCADA vulnerabilities are "overblown" and the reports are "hype." Actually hacking into SCADA software and causing physical damage to a system is exceptionally difficult. In fact, the only known SCADA attack to cause damage was the Stuxnet virus, which was created after years of intensive research and espionage by Israel and America's most advanced spies and engineers to damage a secret Iranian nuclear facility.

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