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.

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