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Contemporary Threats to the U.S. Power Grid
ONC Editorial

May 30, 2023

This Opinion discusses the implications of future cyber threats on the U.S. power grid. (The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.)

In modern society, we have become fully reliant on electricity, and for good reason. Everything from powering our light fixtures to charging our phones relies on a complex, interconnected network that delivers electricity in a convenient and reliable manner. But what if one day you wake up and there is no power? 

One day the power might go out. And not just for a blip of a moment or a few hours. What if it lasted days, weeks, or months even? How would you function, let alone the rest of society, if something that connects all of us is suddenly removed from the equation? While we have averted this scenario so far, there are threats to the U.S. power grid that could revert many of us back to reading books by candlelight. 

In May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline–which carries approximately 45% of the fuel consumed on the East Coast of the U.S.–was caught in a ransomware attack, causing it to shut down in order to contain the attack. President Biden declared a state of emergency in response: gas prices saw a sizable increase in some states, and thousands of gas stations were out of gas for weeks as a result of a halt that lasted less than a week. This situation only affected a portion of the U.S. and did not last particularly long, yet it significantly impacted society. Now, imagine if a similar problem was applied to the power grid. Some of us might be able to go a week or two without gas in the tanks of our cars, but how long could an area sustain a widespread power outage? While places such as hospitals have backup generators, grocery stores and other places that are required for daily living tend to lack generators that can provide electricity for more than a day. While there have been attempts by the federal government to move critical power grid security infrastructure offline to prevent incursions, penetration is still a distinct possibility. The hacker group that caused the Colonial Pipeline shutdown stated they only wanted money, and did not want to create chaos for society. What if a bad actor did not desire money, and could not be negotiated with? The situation could be disastrous in terms of both human lives and the economic cost. 

In order to diminish the risk of such an event, we must place more emphasis on power grid security and on keeping vital infrastructure disconnected from the internet. Given that most security issues occur through some hapless employee not following thorough protocols (which includes the Colonial Pipeline incident), the individuals who conduct work associated with the power grid must receive proper and careful training to avoid mishaps. The possibility of a successful attack on the power grid is unlikely, but it is something that we must prepare for. 

To see all sources consulted/reviewed/interviewed for the purposes of writing this article and/or to learn more about this article's author, click here.

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