Just thinking about the world of the prepper, and all the things that might cause him to hunker down and open cans of LTS food – makes the head spin. Planning and developing your prep focus requires that you seek knowledge, skills and supplies that will help you deal with more than one scenario at a time. In fact, the more the better. Food is a universal prep. So is water filtration /storage. Same goes for medical training / supplies. But looking at the equation from the other side begs the question; “Is there ONE event that I should consider, of significant danger rising above all the others, that would require specific thought and planning?” I think there is, and it isn’t on my radar just because it is some epic and fantastic scenario that would make for a good movie, or an internet video. I consider a grid attack to be the most likely major event in our future.
I’m a believer that the the two most likely grid attacks we might suffer as a nation are:
- A HEMP strike, be it continent-wide or local, and
- A massive coordinated hacking attack on intelligent electronically-controlled infrastructure and resources, such as the power grid, refineries, hydroelectric power producers and air traffic control.
Hacking as an Industrial Attack Method
Hacking attacks require the disassembly or destruction of information technology safeguards, followed by the actual malicious activity. Defeating safeguards such as firewalls, V-LANs, multi-level password schemes, certificates and other authorizations require significant brainpower and creativity on each level. As each major resource has unique protections, even in standardized industries, enemy hackers require some specialized information to get inside. Most major infrastructure relies on automated protection schemes that augment human operators on the watch for things out of the norm.
Once an organization has found a way inside and located the facility that grants control of a resource, the hacker may devise or execute his plan. The complexity of that plan depends on his goals. In November of 2011, a motor control routine was hacked with the intent to destroy a pump motor in a municipal water station. This was done by telling it to start and stop repeatedly. After heating beyond design limits, it self destructed. From Wired.com
The intruders launched their attack from IP addresses based in Russia and gained access by first hacking into the network of a software vendor that makes the SCADA system used by the utility. The hackers stole usernames and passwords that the vendor maintained for its customers, and then used those credentials to gain remote access to the utility’s network.
The methods used to gain access vary considerably, and are often shared with other hacker groups, or among nation-sponsors of such activity. Keep that in mind when you hear about the next break in at a bank, Department of Defense computer, or national retail outlet headquarters. The attack might be from a distant national intelligence agency, or a group of kids at the high school up the street. From the Washington Times, August 2011:
Joe Weiss, a veteran consultant on ICS security for several industries, said the key issue was that Mr. Beresford was able to hack the equipment even with no experience with ICS systems, a small budget and limited time.
“You don’t have to be a nation state” to hack ICS systems, Mr. Weiss said. “The game has fundamentally changed.”
How might a hacker enterprise seek to create widespread damage? In my opinion, the area of greatest return on their “investment” would be our energy grid. If a group of nasty individuals wanted to stop America in its tracks, taking down our power grid, or even a sizable portion of it, would be the way to go.
Disrupting market computers, or stealing millions of passwords leading to damaged accounts would hurt, yes. But information, on the whole, can be recreated from backups and electronic paper trails. Stolen identities, bank accounts and financial instruments can be restored over time.
Actual physical damage to our power distribution systems is an entirely different matter. Unbalancing the load on our grid via shunting, shutdowns and intentional bad management can result in great damage. The successful burn out of transformers, or the dynamos that feed them, would take a long time to rectify. Spares for some units are not very plentiful, and the skilled labor required for repairs may be severely overburdened if the attack is sufficientlylarge. China has been in the news on and off for its nation-sponsored efforts against our security infrastructures. From KrebsonSecurity.com, September, 2012:
In letters sent to customers last week, Telvent Canada Ltd. said that on Sept. 10, 2012 it learned of a breach of its internal firewall and security systems. Telvent said the attacker(s) installed malicious software and stole project files related to one of its core offerings — OASyS SCADA — a product that helps energy firms mesh older IT assets with more advanced “smart grid” technologies.
This is an important event in that it signifies an attempt to gain access to technology that marries the older non-standard control systems (often times developed “in-house”, with no outside assistance) with the newer off-the-shelf packages sold by companies seeking to develop industry standards. In a sense, the older systems are hack-resistant. A hacker needs some sort of knowledge of that individual system, and experience hacking other installations might not be of much benefit. The newer kids on the block are like strip malls – they look and function much the same among customer bases. So, getting hold of Telvent core information grants possible access to the systems in both universes of control technology. A “Master Key”, so to speak.
Why I Chose HEMP /EMP over the Hacker Community as the Greater Threat
The EMP attack is an effort located entirely in the science and industry world of the attacking entity. His challenge is not to search out and defeat security protocols, but to overcome his own technological shortcomings. The work that must be completed is under his control, and not subject to discovery. When he runs into a roadblock, he isn’t concerned with how someone on the other side will react. His failure doesn’t generate a distant response that creates yet another barrier. His problems are all in-house.
He must develop the device, package it into a delivery vehicle, and develop a strategy for deployment. The vehicle must reach the required geo-spacial location from where the nefarious device can destroy a portion of the North American grid, important electronic devices not reachable via hacking (by connection, security or sheer numbers) and any other devices qualifying as happy instances of collateral damage.
Both Methods are Subject to Countermeasures
Hackers must contend with an ever increasing number of defense mechanisms, strategies and “White Hat” hackers leading boiler rooms of defense techies. Their targets may be stationary, but the targets’ defenses morph and move, as if they were alive. In a sense, they are – and adaptable.
The EMP warrior seeks to overpower his targets’ hardening efforts. If the devices is large enough, he wins. If not – he might still win, depending on collateral damage. (I’ll cover that later) . His attack may be subject to denial by our defenses such as a missile intercept, EMP hardening of critical infrastructure (both military and civilian), or preemptive strikes. There are also the cloak and dagger boys and special operators to contend with, but those amazing individuals are beyond the scope of this article. Defeating defensive efforts calls for some creativity. The size and number of devices, back-door hits and detonation locations give the attacker several ways to get his point across.
Why is the Grid Such a Juicy Target?
To understand why the destruction of portions of the grid is so effective and desirable, we need to think about what that thing actually does for us – how its loss affects us. During a black-out, we civilians lose the use of just about everything serviced by the power company. A partial list can read:
- lights, fans, garage door openers
- A/C, and heater fans
- computers, TVs, internet equipment, home networks, stereos, security systems
- telephones, HAM and CB radios, battery chargers
- ranges, ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, freezers, washers and dryers, dishwashers, water heaters
Public devices and services lost to us may include:
- city water pumps, sewage pumps, control of flood basin weirs
- cable cars, electric trolleys, light rail, emergency freeway signs
- building elevators, electric doors, security systems, building coolers and ventilation
- street lights and traffic signals
While all of these create problems to some degree (some systems will run on backup generators or UPS power), the loss of major systems serviced by the grid can cause real headaches and nightmares. Some of these you can expect to run for a limited time following an attack, but will eventually fail due to generator fuel running out, or UPS batteries depleting.
- Air Traffic Control systems at airports
- Railway routing command and control centers
- Public communications provided by TV and radio stations
- Police and Fire response delayed as communications become tight
- gas stations, weigh stations
- shopping malls and food centers
- water at home, as pressure drops due to the loss of pumping capacity at the utility
The above black out effects are greater or lessor depending on the size and duration of the event. Reference the Northeast Blackouts of 1977 (13 hours) and 2003 (2 days). Some of the effects were contaminated water supplies, lack of water pressure, cellular communications failure, reserve generator failures due to inadequate power planning, delayed emergency services and large scale mass transit failures and delays. The relatively short durations of these and other events, coupled with the large scale effects, contrast with the expected effects of a very serious event.
I’ll draw a word picture for you. Take for granted that a limited strike has destroyed transformers and control systems for much of the north eastern area of the US and Canada. A device was detonated at an altitude of 45 miles, limiting its effective area, after being launched from a container ship just outside New York harbor. Power has been down for 6 days except for some outlying regions where creative reconfiguration has proven effective. Repairs crews are receiving parts and devices needed for the repair effort, and the larger units needed for full restoration are due to arrive shortly.
In the meantime, several things happened. Loss of water pressure and inoperative local lift pumps have left tall buildings with no water. No water means no toilets, no showers, no cooling from water-chilled A/C systems, and no drinking water except from bottles. Some of those buildings became stifling hothouses in the summer heat within two days. The stench moved through the hallways. Clogged toilets. Food that wasn’t eaten rotted. Human funk. Cigarette smoke that could not be ventilated out. Some trash collection was delayed, and the piles of garbage added a small but noticeable odor to the mix.
Two fires grew larger than they otherwise would because of low water pressure in the city system. Fire department pumpers with on-board tanks saved the day.
Some grocery stores managed to stay open, selling fresh food quickly, and tossing the rest as it spoiled. They received deliveries as usual, in most cases (some deliveries were withheld because smaller stores had no way to pay electronically). Their sales were mainly soda, beer, water, canned goods that could be eaten with little preparation, bagged snacks and candy. Baby wipes and sanitizing wipes were purchased by some that saw the need initially, and by more as time passed. They closed well before dark to discourage shoplifting, which expanded quite a bit.
Public transportation that relied on electricity was at a standstill. Buses powered by natural gas ran for the first few days, but the gas pressure dropped and they couldn’t be refueled. Same for propane vehicles. The older diesel buses ran fine.
The result of the above was that many discovered that their situations were untenable, and they left the area temporarily to find places that were livable. Where people could tough it out, they did. Others took advantage of the dark night to loot, rob and conduct much more serious crime.
When the power came back up, it was spotty at first, but 65% of the area saw close to normal service two days after the first major switch was thrown. Within another week, all outlying areas were back on line. The aftereffects lingered, though, and damaged and vandalized buildings, trams, buses and other public property would need time for repairs. Some systems and personal equipment were destroyed by surges coursing through the grid as it came back up.
There was a death toll. People died from heat stroke, failure of home medical devices, unfortunate illness due to lack of access to regularly needed drugs, fights and mobs, and a few murders. The dead were buried and memorialized, and some survivors began to make serious plans to mitigate the effects of another such situation.
In the above scenario, I did not take into account the outright destruction of electronic devices by the pulse itself, or the over-charge coming in on the power lines, telephone lines and antennae all over the region. This particular device “magically” ONLY affected the grid, and to a modest degree.
“This was a test, and only a test. In the event of a real EMP attack, send a smoke signal to your nearest congressman or congresswoman and tell them they are fired.”
In Part II, we’ll get into how an EMP device may function, and what it might do.