Print 48 comment(s) - last by petergibons.. on Mar 26 at 7:46 PM

Wang Jianwei never expected his paper on a theoretical attack on the U.S. power grid would get so much attention.  (Source: Du Bin for The New York Times)

China reportedly has a thriving cyberwarfare program, and some in the U.S. government fear that it could be turned against us. Others dismiss such concerns as paranoia.  (Source: Right Democrat: A Mainstream Populist Voice)
Authors of controversial Chinese paper argue it was a mere research exercise

Wang Jianwei, a graduate engineering student in Liaoning, China, never imagined his paper on cyberattacks and the U.S. power grid would draw so much attention.  However, concern about the paper is mounting due to the fact that it reportedly highlights a very real vulnerability of the U.S. power grid, the backbone of our nation's civilian, commercial, and military infrastructure.

The report went largely unnoticed and unreported until Larry M. Wortzel, a military strategist and China specialist, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10 that "Chinese researchers at the Institute of Systems Engineering of Dalian University of Technology published a paper on how to attack a small U.S. power grid sub-network in a way that would cause a cascading failure of the entire U.S."

Tensions over cyber security and the internet have been high between the U.S. and China in previous months.  Google has pulled the plug on its Chinese search engine after cyber attacks and Chinese censorship demands.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently gave Chinese politicians an earful over these problems.  China denies the attacks on Google originated from within China and says that online control is essential to preserve a stable society.

As to Mr. Wang's paper, “Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid”, published in the journal 
Safety Science, Mr. Wang claims that his goal was protect the U.S. by illustrating a potential vulnerability.  In an interview with The New York Times he states, "We usually say ‘attack’ so you can see what would happen.  My emphasis is on how you can protect this. My goal is to find a solution to make the network safer and better protected."

Experts tend to agree.  According to their analysis, the paper was very appropriate academically and hardly gave someone a comprehensive plan to take down the U.S. power grid.  Nart Villeneuve, a researcher with the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based cybersecurity research and consulting group equates Mr. Wortzel's analysis to paranoia.  He comments, "Already people are interpreting this as demonstrating some kind of interest that China would have in disrupting the U.S. power grid.  Once you start interpreting every move that a country makes as hostile, it builds paranoia into the system."

Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) disagrees.  He was very interested in the paper and Mr. Wortzel's presentation.  He commented during the briefing that the issue was of particular concern to Californians, alluding to claims by 
The Los Angeles Times that attackers in China's Guangdong Province were responsible for power grid network intrusions in 2001.

So is the U.S. at risk from a Chinese cyberassault on the power grid?  That depends on who you ask.  John Arquilla, director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.  opines, "What we know from network science is that dense communications across many different links and many different kinds of links can have effects that are highly unpredictable.  [Cyberwarfare is] analogous to the way people think about biological weapons — that once you set loose such a weapon it may be very hard to control where it goes."

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By superPC on 3/23/2010 9:01:37 AM , Rating: 1
how to attack a small U.S. power grid sub-network in a way that would cause a cascading failure of the entire U.S

I don't understand how can an attack on a power grid sub network can cause an entire country electric grid to fail. surely if there's one sub-network that's under attack, we have technology to isolate that sub-network and reroute electricity to other grid.

To bad I just graduated so I no longer have journal access. I really want to read that paper. Can anyone who've read that paper explained the attack mechanism?

RE: How?
By banthracis on 3/23/2010 9:30:41 AM , Rating: 5
It's actually not that hard to take down the US power grid, because grids across huge area's of the country are interconnected.
If you remember back in 2003, the Northeast suffered a major blackout that affected somethign like 10 million. The root cause of this was essentially a single small plant going offline during a high energy use period. This plant's failure started a cascade affect as the power grid in that area drew on power from nearby grids to compensate, and those in turn drew power from other grids.

This cascade of power draw results in unstable power triggering breakers and emergency plant shutdowns to prevent overloads. This in turn leads to a massive blackout.

So really, doesn't take much.

RE: How?
By banthracis on 3/23/2010 9:36:13 AM , Rating: 5
In his paper Wang basically refers to a similiar scenario as the 2003 blacouts.

"If a node has a relatively small load, its removal will not cause major changes in the balance of loads, and subsequent overload failures are unlikely to occur. However, when the load at a node is relatively large, its removal is likely to affect significantly loads at other nodes and possibly starts a sequence of overload failures and eventually a large drop in the network performance such as those observed in real systems, like the Internet or the electrical power term grids."

He basically spends rest of the paper mathematically demonstrating this idea.

RE: How?
By superPC on 3/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: How?
By Chemical Chris on 3/23/2010 10:54:07 AM , Rating: 3
Im pretty sure the blackout was closer to 100 million than it was to 10 million (according to wiki, 10 million ontario, 45 million NE US).
Strangely enough, the restaurant I worked as a cook at (in highschool at the time) kept power for the first ~12 hours of the blackout! The blackout started at ~4pm, the lights flickered, but I only realized what had happened when I left and noticed the entire town was power-less. So I ignored my phone to avoid going in to cook one of <10 places within >100km that had power (Cooks dont get tips, so f that, lol).

Also, who else when out and bought cheap meat from the store before it went bad? That was an awesome, cheap BBQ, I must say!



RE: How?
By omnicronx on 3/23/2010 11:47:09 AM , Rating: 3
The root cause of this was essentially a single small plant going offline during a high energy use period. This plant's failure started a cascade affect as the power grid in that area drew on power from nearby grids to compensate, and those in turn drew power from other grids.
Actually thats not really correct, it was not that plant alone that caused the cascade, it was only a low power station almost within city limits. When that plant went down, it put pressure on high voltage rural lines, which for all intents and purposes should not have cause the trouble it did, plants do go down, and extra power is drawn elsewhere. Apparently the fault really lies on.. a tree.. and maintenance crews not doing their job to keep trees along these high voltage lines clear. Contact with 'overgrown trees' caused the 350 kv line to go down, starting the cascade effect.

There was also human error involved in one of the grid control towers.

RE: How?
By banthracis on 3/23/2010 11:58:10 AM , Rating: 2
Definitely true. I simplified the story for the sake of brevity rather than list the step buy step process which involved many failures and oversights.

Also, single node or plant failure is the model used by Wang's paper to explain a cascade effect, so I figured I'd keep it at that so the connection is transparent.

RE: How?
By Samus on 3/24/2010 12:22:14 AM , Rating: 2
Our grid is super old school. It's simple in that it deverts power to where load/demand is high, making it hugely easy to trick. All the system does now is keep track of who uses how many kilowatts.

RE: How?
By JJBladester on 3/23/2010 9:49:38 AM , Rating: 2
RE: How?
By ekv on 3/23/2010 3:36:36 PM , Rating: 2
This file is neither allocated to a Premium Account, or a Collector's Account, and can therefore only be downloaded 10 times. This limit is reached. To download this file, the uploader either needs to transfer this file into his/her Collector's Account, or upload the file again. The file can later be moved to a Collector's Account. The uploader just needs to click the delete link of the file to get further information.

Any way you could post another link? 8)

[Ordinarily, I believe in paying for services rendered, though for some reason I feel I've sent enough dough to China].

RE: How?
By ghost101 on 3/26/2010 3:39:09 AM , Rating: 2
Its actually a Amsterdam based journal you'd be giving the money to.

I would host the file normally, but since I can't edit posts here, I can't provide a link temporarily.

RE: How?
By Iaiken on 3/23/2010 11:04:22 AM , Rating: 5
Rewind August 2003.

The lights went out for 1/3 of the population of North America because some accountants in Britain wanted to wait one more year before trimming some trees in Ohio. Over 250 power plants went offline including ALL of the nuclear stations in the region.

The US electricity grid is antiquated to say the very least and in some areas it is ancient by grid standards. In many cases, lines over 60 years old are servicing communities that have grown substantially since their installation. This has resulted in an overburdened grid with an absence of redundancy. This lack of redundancy has also reduced the fault tolerance of the grid under peak load scenarios like that of the August 2003 blackout (which is essentially a proof of concept).

To go into greater detail, what happened in 2003:

Somewhere in Ohio:

A line fault was caused by a line sagging so low under the heat of the day and it's load. The line arced to some overgrown trees and caused the breakers on the line to trip off. This put the entire load of those lines and the town beyond on other nearby lines, which tripped off those lines around an hour later.

It begins:

Now lines suddenly tripping off all over the place and with nowhere for the load to go, the local power stations see a spike in their frequencies as the generators spin up. This results in the generators tripping off and and now you have a reversal of the situation where once there was too much power, now there is not enough. This in turn causes a massive draw on the remaining nearby generators which now experience a spin-down and a drop in frequency and voltage.

No going back now:

This "black hole" in the power grid was also located so that it blocked off important inter-ties from Canada that were importing power. Instead of the Ontario load being equally distributed between Windsor and Niagara, the entire load was now on forced on Niagara which caused Ontario and Michigan to go down with the exception of the area immediately surrounding Niagara and Nanticoke. This subsequently took down the rest of the east coast as key nuclear stations had to poison out their reactors as the massive amount of electricity that was supposed to be flowing into Ontario now had nowhere to go and caused a second frequency spike.

Six Minutes:

Once it was finally under way, the entire chain-reaction from start to end took only 6 minutes to bring down power for one Canadian province and eight US states. Due to the poisoning of several nuclear reactors with heavy water to shut them down in an emergency, these systems weren't able to start back up until they were flushed and the pipes all inspected for thermal stress from cooling down. They then needed to rout power from black start facilities to the nuclear plants because they need an initial energy investment to get them started.

It could have been worse too. Had several key separations not happened when they did, the entire east coast would have gone down.

How do I know? I was working at the Independent Electricity System Operator at the time on the automated generation control systems, the alarm console and the dispatch systems.

Not much has changed since then and the grids in these regions are still woefully inadequate considering the loads they are under during peak summer usage.

So essentially, the author is proposing to recreate the same situation in key areas of both the eastern and western power corridors.

Fun times!

RE: How?
By banthracis on 3/23/2010 11:51:49 AM , Rating: 5
Actually in the paper Wang doesn't propose any sort of attack plans. He merely creates a mathematical model and explains that how much load must be transferred to cause a cascade effect. IE, how big a power plant you theoretically have to knock out in a system to cause a cascade effect.

He doesn't give any idea on how to knock out power, or where to knock it out.

In fact, the system he creates is pretty useless for terrorists since it's just a mathematically model and the numbers used are in now way representative of actual numbers in the US power grid. His model is also MUCH simpler than the complex power grid system int he US.

It's pretty much like me writing a paper on which block to pull in a Jenga game to cause the tower to fall and someone else claiming the knowledge in this paper can be used by terrorists to destroy skyscrapers.

Pretty stupid inference from a completely theoretical mathematical model.

RE: How?
By Iaiken on 3/23/2010 2:50:23 PM , Rating: 2
How big a power plant you theoretically have to knock out in a system to cause a cascade effect

Actually, he didn't say you had to knock out any power plants nor does the model say you need to in order to cause a cascade.

Problem is that the grid is that it's not that hard to topple over. In 2003, happenstance took down the grid in the exact ways that his models describe.

Cutting out key segments of the physical grid caused a chain reaction. Essentially it was a cascade of partial islandification wherein the voltage loads were able to able to flip flop back and forth from high to low. This in turn pulled down the system as AGC and human controllers failed to recognize the signs of the problem as they arose.

That said, it's impossible to bring the ENTIRE system down. Texas and Quebec are DC islands in an ocean of AC. Their only connections to the rest of North America are complex and closely monitored DC-AC inter-ties. The eastern and western corridors are not only segmented from each other, but also smaller subsegments. Black start facilities can spin up immediately after a fault and slowly take on loads in their immediate vicinity.

More shockingly, it would be relatively inexpensive to co-ordinate a large-scale long-term outage for ~80% of North Americans. Such an attack would cost the world market trillions of dollars a day until power could be restored.

The longer the outage, the greater the threat. Power is one of the golden triad of north american life: Power, Finance, Agriculture. Without power, we have neither of the other two as almost all fuel pumps are electric and without fuel or finance you cannot get food to the people.

So yeah, it's kinda one of those things where you don't just hope it will never happen, but you take pro-active steps towards making it so that it can never happen.

RE: How?
By Donkeyshins on 3/23/2010 12:35:33 PM , Rating: 2
Yet another reason I'm glad I invested in a 10kW whole-house generator a couple of years ago.

RE: How?
By TETRONG on 3/23/10, Rating: -1
No worries, John McClane will save everyone!
By DukeN on 3/23/2010 9:23:12 AM , Rating: 3
I already saw this happen before in a movie.

If McClane fails there's always Beck and Coulter - that'll show em!

RE: No worries, John McClane will save everyone!
By MrBlastman on 3/23/2010 9:48:38 AM , Rating: 3
McClane never fails. He eats glass and craps on F-35's. Would you want to stand in a man's way that can do that?

By Donkeyshins on 3/23/2010 12:36:38 PM , Rating: 2
No, but Chuck Norris might.

RE: No worries, John McClane will save everyone!
By MrBlastman on 3/23/2010 3:56:19 PM , Rating: 2
Chuck Norris doesn't save people... he roundhouse kicks their heads off!

By Spookster on 3/23/2010 7:44:16 PM , Rating: 4
When Chuck Norris enters the room, people kick their own heads off.

By AstroCreep on 3/23/2010 1:18:41 PM , Rating: 4
...there's always Beck and Coulter - that'll show em!

Is that before or after Beck apologizes for wasting an hour of their time?

The more obvious question
By widowmaker314 on 3/23/2010 9:42:34 AM , Rating: 2
What disturbs me is if this vulnerability was known, why has it not been remedied? Instead, calling out a scholar just because it was convenient to pass the blame, especially now of all times. As a person who experienced the North American blackout of 2003, I am troubled that after 7 years security to the power grid has not been addressed. The 2003 blackout was also a cascade effect CAUSED BY A TREE in Ohio. The power grid system is outdated and it is not a Chinese student's fault. If the argument is that the US government wasn't aware of this vulnerability then well... they just had their asses handed to them on a silver platter with a side of peking duck.

RE: The more obvious question
By Reclaimer77 on 3/23/2010 11:06:29 AM , Rating: 1
Because nobody is going to do it, that's why. We don't need a stable power grid to send carrier battle groups to your doorstep and pound your country to rubble from international waters.

RE: The more obvious question
By Iaiken on 3/23/2010 3:02:47 PM , Rating: 2
The reason is that it's expensive.

In most areas, the US power grid is 20-30 years old (if not older). Much of the government built lines were actually fully redundant and could sustain the system under upwards of 50% line loss.

As private companies took over the grids, they looked at this built in tolerance not as tolerance, but as capacity. Instead of continually upgrading and increasing capacity to maintain this redundancy, they simply continued to operate under the status quo.

Communities grew along with our individual power requirements and once capacity was reached, they simply added more lines on an as-needed basis. The result is what you see today. A majority of lines which are due for replacement, supplemented by modern additions.

I'm all for capitalism and the private sector is not really to blame. I blame lack of foresight by the government that didn't make it a requirement for grid operators to maintain the same level of fault tolerance that was built into the grid in the first place. Upgrading things over time would have been a hell of a lot more financially viable than the shitstorm they've set themselves up for.

RE: The more obvious question
By gamerk2 on 3/23/2010 3:25:05 PM , Rating: 2
States rights. The Federal government would have to go though literally several THOUSAND state agencies in order to make changes to the overall grid at a national level.

Of course, the states don't have the money to make changes to local operators, and for companies that operate across state lines, states have no power.

And finally, Profit Margins come into play, as the power companies have no benfit to upgrade their infrastructure.

So you see, just like the Internet, there is no incentive whatsoever to upgrade service. And the states have no power or money to make significant changes, and the Federal Government is handcuffed by state agencies that oversee the local grid.

Larry M. Wortzel says....
By Amiga500 on 3/23/2010 8:59:55 AM , Rating: 2
China is a bigger danger than ever. I am an expert on Chinese military.

Can I have a pay raise please?

RE: Larry M. Wortzel says....
By Amiga500 on 3/23/2010 9:02:15 AM , Rating: 2
"If I were a miliary strategist, I would publish all my plans for disabling the enemy's infrastructure in peer reviewed and public domain academic journals.

Now, where is my application for MENSA again?"

RE: Larry M. Wortzel says....
By ekv on 3/23/2010 4:01:52 PM , Rating: 2
Did you read Wortzel's report? The part where he mentions Wang & Rong's academic paper is on page 5. Almost mentioned in passing since there are about 8 references in 6 paragraphs.

I didn't really get that Wortzel was being sensationalist. I thought it was quite level-headed. You can choose to ignore the information if you wish. However! However, if you start connecting the dots, then maybe there is a pattern of Chinese behaviour that we ought to take steps against.

He isn't the first person to notice
"Cyberwar declared as China hunts for the West’s intelligence secrets"
but a clever PLA general perhaps would try to turn Wang & Rong's purely academic paper into some kind of weapon.

Do they have any wise guys over there?

By wiz220 on 3/23/2010 11:45:39 AM , Rating: 3
alluding to claims by The Los Angeles Times that attackers in China's Guangdong Province were responsible for power grid network intrusions in 2001.

I thought it was pretty well established that all the shenanigans in California's power grid around that time were the work of Enron inflating power prices.

Eisenhower Style
By Shig on 3/23/2010 9:41:05 AM , Rating: 2
Infrastructure upgrades in the name of military and public safety. Hard to argue with and very needed.

I like it.

Article here
By JJBladester on 3/23/2010 9:48:58 AM , Rating: 2

If you can understand the mathematical notation, linked lists, and the Dijkstra shortest-path algorithm, this may make a bit of sense to you.

I don't fault the author for writing this; just like I don't fault white-hat hackers who find security holes and tell people about them. Since when was disseminating knowledge bad for your health?

Here's a novel idea
By ZachDontScare on 3/23/2010 2:42:22 PM , Rating: 2
How about we fix that.

By fc1204 on 3/23/2010 4:06:05 PM , Rating: 2
the people at con ed (and the tea partiers) are not going to like the solution since a simple federal funded method where strategic locations within each grid is supported by solar, wind, and other power sources can address a sudden small drop in a key load node. basically, support beams to keep the house of cards from toppling.

enron flashback
By fc1204 on 3/23/2010 4:46:17 PM , Rating: 2
wait... you mean to tell me gw bush didn't cover his tracks on this? leaving the backdoor open should be reason enough to indict his ass on treason.

amazing that the enron lesson has not really been learned... makes me wonder if the katrina lesson will actually need some threat from china to bring to the top of the republican's to-do-list.

now, someone from new orleans should slip a paper into a chinese grad's mailbox titled "how to topple america with a hurricane" that might get your levy fixed...

This is entirely possible
By petergibons on 3/26/2010 7:46:01 PM , Rating: 2
China is not the only contender to be a threat for this sort of attack on the US, Russia, North Korea, al qaeda are right up there.

This is something we have been pushing for close to a decade, a sort of cyber awareness that people just don't seem to believe can happen.

Here is a great video from Frontline on Cyber War, the video goes over attacks on the power grid. Pay close attention to the comments made on how long this could last.

Enron outrun the Chinese
By Ascanius on 3/23/2010 11:06:05 AM , Rating: 1
This is just another proff of how slow the Chinese are!

We did this to our selves back at the good old Enron days, the success firm that got on the front page of Time and all economic journals for their "brilliant" ways", goverment clapping their shoulders and kissing their chicks all the way untill the fall.

So dun fear what the chinese have learned that we do to our selves out of pure greed or survival of the fittest in the case of Enron´s brilliant leadership ;-)

Now.......Onwards with our daily hypocracy and lets never focus on our own ways of attacking others just like this, like the black use of a certain earth chrust resonator and many more.

It's all good
By hiscross on 3/23/10, Rating: -1
RE: It's all good
By sbtech on 3/23/2010 8:40:10 AM , Rating: 2

RE: It's all good
By hiscross on 3/23/2010 12:30:24 PM , Rating: 2
Really! It took the socialist 65 years to put health care into law. It only took the Chinese the same day once Mao become it's leader. There is a reason why Onlt China will lend the US money. Only a Nut would deny that fact.

RE: It's all good
By Donkeyshins on 3/23/2010 12:39:03 PM , Rating: 1

Now go back to your Ayn Rand books and John Birch pamphlets.

RE: It's all good
By hiscross on 3/23/2010 2:58:49 PM , Rating: 2
"who is Jogn Galt?" Gotto love those lefty socialist. I wish I could pass a law that makes stealing hard working peoples money legal. Oh, course I do have morals and I propduce, so you see reading does have it's strenghts.

RE: It's all good
By FaaR on 3/24/2010 12:29:31 AM , Rating: 1
Explain to me why having a federal army is not socialist and not bad, but having federal health care is socialist and bad.

Apparantly; army that kills people = hunky dory, hospitals that heal people = COMMUNISM!!!

Sheesh, where do you stupid loonies come from, Planet Bizarro perhaps? It's not any place that values rational thought and logical reasoning, that's for sure.

RE: It's all good
By hiscross on 3/24/2010 8:59:45 AM , Rating: 2
Without a strong military the US would cease to exist it's that simple. If you think you live without a strong military ask Berry to shut it down. Where do I come from? My roots are from Sparta. I am Greek and I am free.

By tedrodai on 3/23/10, Rating: -1
By Abrahmm on 3/23/10, Rating: -1
RE: Hmmmm
By mcnabney on 3/23/2010 10:27:10 AM , Rating: 3
The only big entitlements left are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - all of which are paid for by earnings taxes. Clinton killed the old welfare state for the most part.
If you are serious about cutting SS or Medicare I will send my dad over to your place so that he can beat you to death with his cane.

/he wouldn't really beat you with a cane
//he is quite spry for a 75 year old
///he would use baseball bat instead

RE: Hmmmm
By Donkeyshins on 3/23/2010 12:37:53 PM , Rating: 2
Perhaps some of the "shovel-ready" federal improvement programs to spur economic growth should focus on the power grid...

"I mean, if you wanna break down someone's door, why don't you start with AT&T, for God sakes? They make your amazing phone unusable as a phone!" -- Jon Stewart on Apple and the iPhone

Latest Headlines

Most Popular ArticlesAre you ready for this ? HyperDrive Aircraft
September 24, 2016, 9:29 AM
Leaked – Samsung S8 is a Dream and a Dream 2
September 25, 2016, 8:00 AM
Inspiron Laptops & 2-in-1 PCs
September 25, 2016, 9:00 AM
Snapchat’s New Sunglasses are a Spectacle – No Pun Intended
September 24, 2016, 9:02 AM
Walmart may get "Robot Shopping Carts?"
September 17, 2016, 6:01 AM

Copyright 2016 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki