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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 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.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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