Cyberwar Hype Leaps To The UK, While Electric Grid Expert Calls Claims Of Attacks 'Hooey'

from the espionage-is-not-war dept

We've been covering all the hyped up claims of cyberwar, often made by law enforcement officials or defense contractors who clearly benefit from keeping people fearful. However, evidence of such claims is always lacking, beyond some vague "trust us, it's bad!" But, all we've seen so far is that people are definitely trying to hack into each other's systems, but that's hardly "war." However, it looks like this hype isn't just happening in the US. A UK official is getting in on the act too, claiming that cyberwar attacks are already happening. But, of course, he's again pretty vague on details. At best he says that the internet has "increased the risk of disruption to infrastructure such as power stations and financial services."

Of course, right before I had read that article, I had been reading an article where the reporter spoke to an energy grid expert, who called such claims "a bunch of hooey." The guy, Seth Blumsack, along with a couple of colleagues, had been hearing all these stories about how "at risk" the electric grid was, so they went looking for the evidence. After looking at the claims and predictions, they realized that those claiming the electrical grid was at risk didn't actually appear to understand the physics of how electric grids actually work.
Blumsack, Hines and Cotilla-Sanchez decided to contrast the performance of a topological model with one based on actual physics - specifically on Ohm's and Kirchoff's Laws governing the flow of electricity in the real world. They tried out both kinds of model on an accurate representation of the North American Eastern Interconnect, the largest and one of the most trouble-prone portions of the US grid, using real-world data from a test case generated in 2005.

The three engineers say that the physics-driven model was much closer to reality, and that this verifies what physics models show. The results showed that in fact it is major grid components through which a lot of power flows - big generating stations and massive transformers - which are the main points of vulnerability, not the minor installations scattered across the country.

It isn't so much that a minor event on a minor line or installation can't crash the network: such things do happen. But in general there have to be huge numbers of such minor events before one of them happens to hit the miracle weak point and bring everything down. It would be an impossible task for terrorists or other malefactors to know in advance just where and when a minor pinprick could cause massive effects.

"Our system is quite robust to small things failing," says Hines.
Seems like, once again, the claims of cyberwar are overblown.

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  1. icon
    Free Capitalist (profile), 19 Oct 2010 @ 10:46am

    Re:

    Is there some secret IP address that no one knows about that a terrorist might find out about and use it to DDOS a transformer?

    No, as others have said, the management systems for the power grid are not directly connected to the Internet.

    I believe one of the hyped up fears, as far as direct attacks from the Internet are concerned, is that someone's desktop might be set up with an Internet connection and an out of band connection to the power grid management system. This theoretical system (I cannot say one exists, and I would bet it would violate security policy at the power companies) could be compromised over the Internet, and if remote control were attained, someone could access the power grid management system.

    However, as always, the greatest threat for a successful hack comes from an "inside job".

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