Last Word: Cyber-blackout – The dangers within and without the grid
Speaking as someone who lives and works in Western Europe, and having spent more than 15 years in Africa, I have first-hand experience of some of the world’s most and least reliable infrastructures.
In Africa, I was used to working around daily blackouts. In Vienna and London, where I’m based now and where there’s virtually 100 percent availability, we’re wholly dependent on our interconnectivity. We have done little to prepare for the blackout threat because there simply hasn’t been the need.
This kind of thinking cannot go on. We must increase social risk awareness now. Even on the most reliable infrastructures, we face an increasing danger of blackout due to cyber-attack, which could be devastating.
In Southern California back in 2011 a maintenance worker caused the loss of a line operated by Arizona Public Service, resulting in a massive power outage impacting critical services, including traffic lights, causing 3.5 million gallons of sewage to be spilled into the ocean, having an indirect implication on SCADA environments, putting two nuclear reactors off line thus a loss of electricity.
Given the increasing complexity of our critical infrastructure, the growing cyber-security threat and geo-political landscape today, real dangers lie within and without the grid. Energy, like the water supply, telecoms, mobile and banking is increasingly dependent on IT connectivity. The integration of intelligent, internet-dependent measurement systems that form so-called smart-grids, means energy infrastructure is more vulnerable to ‘acts of God’ and cyber-attack than ever. Indeed, the increasing use of renewable resources is a prime example of how our systems are becoming more complex and vulnerable to external threats. There’s a strong argument to be made that secure infrastructure has not grown with the rapid expansion of renewables. As renewable energy plays a bigger part in the national grid, the increased network complexity and number of entry points translates to greater risk.