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Could a cyber attack bring down the energy grid?


This Halloween we’re taking a look at the genuinely scary side of energy. And few things are scarier than not having any energy at all.

On Friday October 21st, thousands of people tried to log on to Twitter. Instead of the usual timeline, they were met with an error page. The situation was repeated across the globe for users of Paypal, Spotify and Netflix. Cyber hackers had brought down the world’s biggest, wealthiest, websites.

It gets creepier: the attack used thousands of internet connected devices, including cameras and children’s toys, to overwhelm websites with millions upon millions of requests, knocking them offline in what’s known as a ‘denial of service’ attack. Last Friday, hackers turned the internet of things into a weapon.

Worse still? Friday’s attack wasn’t the target. It was the test run.

Knocking websites offline is annoying, knocking payment systems out is disruptive. But knocking out the energy grid could be deadly.

Think about it, energy controls everything: from petrol pumps to cash points to international banking systems. From security systems to refrigeration and sewage. Without electricity, there’s no internet, no communications, no food, no transport.

A large scale power outage would cripple everything we take for granted.

Are we vulnerable?

Let’s start with the facts:

  • This year, the World Energy Council warned that the risk of large scale cyber attacks has increased, and claimed that Governments may be underestimating the risks.
  • Also this year, a survey by digital security firm Tripwire found that cyber attacks against energy companies had ‘spiked’, with 75% of workers questioned stating that their companies had experienced at least one successful attack in the past 12 months.
  • In November, 2015, George Osborne claimed that ISIL may be plotting cyber attacks on UK infrastructure.
  • In 2014 the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security led the largest ever cybersecurity simulation to test readiness to such an attack.

So far, so scary. How likely is a successful attack?

The truth is that we just don’t know.

60% of US tech experts interviewed by Pew Internet and American Life Project believe that a cyber attack will cause loss of life by 2025. Earlier this year the Ukraine was the victim of a successful large scale cyber attack that plunged 225,000 people in the dark for several hours.  

The same thing, or worse, could happen in the UK. Whilst the UK has scores of highly competent cyber security experts working around the clock to stop malicious activity, mistakes do happen. The increasing number of internet connected devices in homes, many with weaker security than computers, has the potential to make us more vulnerable, just as they make us more connected.

So how would a successful cyber attack go down? The first thing that goes will be the lights. For a while it will be like any other blackout. We’ve all been there. After half a day your phone and laptop die, then it gets really annoying. As the night drags on, you can’t get updates on what’s going on- you haven’t had a radio for years. The next morning, when the lights still won’t turn on, you start to worry. Do you go to work? Stay home? If you get a tram or a train, well, they won’t be working. Neither will cash points or petrol pumps. You can’t even make toast for breakfast, and the milk has been in a warm fridge overnight. You might not be able to shower. You can’t access the news. If you don’t have a landline, you can’t even call family.

If there’s an emergency, you can’t call the police. People will panic buy food and petrol. After two days, anything refrigerated will be useless anyway. Lifts, escalators and electric doors will be out of action. Good luck if you use a fob to get into your office.

There will be looting. There may be riots. The global financial system will be chaos. The economic damage could take months to recover from.

How long would a cyber attack blackout last for?

The general consensus appears to be that a cyber attack would last for days at most. However, in his book ‘Lights Out’, veteran journalist Teddy Koppel stated that Governments should be planning for six to 18 months of  power outages. Earlier this year, in the USA, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton heard testimony from utility and government experts that the US could face weeks of power outages in the aftermath of a successful attack.

How can we prepare and protect ourselves from a cyber attack

The main thing that we can do to prevent a cyber attack is to ensure that all internet connected devices we buy have robust security features. As the companies that make so-called ‘smart devices’ tend not to be the ones impacted by cyber attacks, the main incentive for them to up their security game will be consumer pressure.

It’s also worth doing some prep for a successful cyber attack. Check out our infographic for a guide to what you can do to minimise the damage, should the lights go out…

cyber attack business blackout kit

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