Preparing for the cyberattack that will knock out U.S. power grids – Stuart Madnick

MIT Sloan Professor Stuart Madnick

MIT Sloan Professor Stuart Madnick

From Harvard Business Review

Cyberattacks are unavoidable, but we’re not going to stop using computerized systems. Instead, we should be preparing for the inevitable, including a major cyberattack on power grids and other essential systems. This requires the ability to anticipate not only an unprecedented event but also the ripple effects that it could cause.

Here’s an example of second-order effects (though not caused by a cyberattack, they’re a good way to think through what could happen in an attack). In February 2017, an area of Wyoming was hit by a strong wind storm that knocked down many power lines. It took about a week to restore power, due to heavy snow and frozen ground. Initially, water and sewage treatment continued with backup generators. But the pumps that moved sewage from low-lying areas to the treatment plants on higher ground were not designed to have generators, since they could hold several days’ worth of waste. After three days with no power, they started backing up. The water then had to be cut off to prevent backed-up waste water from getting into homes. The area had never lost power for so long, so no one had anticipated such a scenario.

Now think about what would happen if a cyberattack brought down the power grid in New York, for example. New Yorkers could manage for a few hours, maybe a few days, but what would happen if the outage lasted a week or more? For an example of the kind of disruption such an attack could cause, consider the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It knocked out both the power lines and the backup generators at the same time. Either event could have been managed, but both occurring at the same time was a disaster. Without power, the cooling systems in three nuclear reactors failed, resulting in massive radiation exposure and concerns about the safety of food and water. The lesson: We need to prepare not only for an unexpected event but also for the possible secondary effects.

Based on conversations I’ve had with experts in the field, preparedness for a major cyberattack like this is low, regardless of whether you’re talking about the regional or city level, or the private sector. As Lawrence Susskind, a professor in MIT’s urban systems department, described it to me, “Millions…could be left with no electricity, no water, no public transportation, and no waste disposal for weeks (or even months)…. No one can protect critical urban infrastructure on their own. Nobody, though, is showing any leadership.”

In our research consortium at MIT Sloan, we have been studying ways that massive physical damage can happen to power grids and other industrial control systems through a cyberattack. The potential for massive damage is alarming, to say the least. The scenario of losing power for a long time — weeks or even months — is not unthinkable. We went through this recently at MIT when the institute’s cogeneration facility had a turbine failure. It wasn’t due to a cyberattack, but rather to a mechanical failure from a defective nozzle. It took three months to source the necessary parts from Germany and fix the turbine, even though the possibility of such a failure was more likely to be expected than a first-of-its-kind cyberattack might be.

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Stuart Madnick is the John Norris Maguire (1960) Professor of Information Technology, a Professor of Information Technology and Engineering Systems, and the Co-Director of the PROFIT Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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