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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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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.

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