Not Quite Time For Electric Grid Spy Wars Yet

Last Updated Apr 8, 2009 10:35 PM EDT

The electric grid has gotten plenty of attention lately for its apparently prehistoric construction, which bleeds electricity and keeps any of us from gaining insight to our usage patterns. That image is an interesting contrast to the one the Wall Street Journal presents with its latest story on Chinese and Russian hackers, titled Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated By Spies.

"Penetrated" is an exciting word, especially for a newspaper like the WSJ. And the story itself is peppered with more hair-raising phrases. " Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilities, a nuclear power plant or financial networks via the Internet," the story direfully warns, before fingering China and Russia because the probes were sophisticated. A source who enters later says, "If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on." (If excitement is the language of newspapers, governments prefer dullness; China and Russia both issued bland denials to the WSJ that could have been pulled from a template, with the exception of a jibe at the Cold War mentality.)

I admire the sourcing work of the WSJ article -- it appears well peppered with comments from insiders at intelligence agencies. But there's one glaring problem: The paper never so much as hints at exactly what the foreign super-hackers might have targeted. Is it plant computer systems? Sub stations? Routers? Employee email accounts? Who knows?

Chances are, if those details had been present, the story would no longer have been exciting enough for the front page of the paper. The major reason for that is that much of our infrastructure is actually older than the internet. It would take a hell of a computer program to start throwing the physical switches at 30 year old nuclear plants.

Also prominent are mixed allusions to communications and power networks. They're not the same thing. Making the electric grid operate a bit more like a modern network is, in fact, the goal we're currently chasing after.

Hackers will find it much easier to cause serious damage to the grid once it's fully interconnected, with many more virtual controls over how and where electricity flows across the network. This network is being designed with an eye to security, although it's possible flaws will be built in allowing system-wide attacks. More likely, though, is fiddling from small-time hackers, a sort of updated version of the Tron Box, a device that could purportedly make an electric meter run backwards.

Still, overhyped speculation is fun. With that in mind, I'd recommend CBS's follow-up, What if Russia or China Cut Off Your Electricity?, which ends on simulated cliffhanger of not managing to finish the story because your laptop batteries run out. If only I were smart enough to end stories like tha--