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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."



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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.


"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007














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