Imagine for a moment that the power has gone out. Worse still, the Internet is down and so is the Telstra 4G on your iPhone 6.
Maybe to help you picture it better we’ll create a fictitious scenario. So here goes…
It’s 9 pm at night and you have just settled down on the couch with your iPad to relax and unwind. The children are all tucked into bed and the wife is busy catching up on household duties. Suddenly all the lights go out. Everyone is wondering what happened. You say “We’ve just had a blackout”. You get up to go and grab a torch only to remember that the last time you used it the batteries were dead and you didn’t bother to replace them. You use the light on your smartphone to make your way out of the lounge and outside to the side of your house to check the main switchboard. You also notice whilst turning the light function on your smartphone on that there is a message on the touch screen that says “No mobile network coverage”. On your way out you notice all the neighbor’s lights are out and you also hear multiple sirens piercing the dark and eerie night. You think “why to bother checking the switchboard when everyone else is experiencing the same problem” so you automatically head back inside. Your wife wants to know when the power will be back on so she can get that load of washing done. You decide to call the power company’s outages hotline using your landline phone. You pick it up and attempt to dial but nothing happens – it just doesn’t work. At this point, you’re thinking something really serious is going on so you decide to go and find your hand-cranked emergency AM/FM radio to find out what has just happened. Using the light from your phone you turn it on and tune it to your local radio station. Nothing but dead silence. You’re starting to think this is really bizarre! You check a few more stations – same thing.
You’re starting to think that there’s something wrong with your hand-cranked radio so you decide to try the brand new one that was just installed in your car about a week ago. You switch it on and repeat the same process – all the stations are dead silent.
You decide to give the Internet a go and try and see if there is anything on the news, social media, the power company’s website or the emergency alerts app installed on your iPad. As your device repeatedly fails to connect to the Internet, your heart sinks. After all, you are on a reliable Internet broadband data plan and your bills have all been paid so why on earth isn’t it working?
By this time all the children are wide awake and scared. Your wife is trying to calm them down and they have all relocated to the master bedroom.
Still staring at your iPad screen you conclude that there has been a major unknown disaster that caused the total power blackout so not only are you “in the dark” power wise you also have no way to find out what exactly has happened and what caused it.
You live in a low lying area so you decide to get the family in the car and drive to an elevated point above the city to try and see how far the blackout extends to. Once everyone is dressed and grabs blankets you head out of the driveway. Turning onto the main street you notice that the whole place is dark. Not a single light to be seen. You continue on driving up several kilometers into the foothills of a mountain range and park your car at a lookout and gaze down at the city. Not a single light to be seen except for a few faint distant ones plus the flashing lights from emergency vehicles.
As you stand there looking out over the eerie blackness you wonder what happened as your family asks questions that you cannot answer. You are left in total darkness – you don’t know for how long. Without outside communications, you may never know!
End of scenario.
Ok, so are YOU prepared for a major blackout? Such a scenario really isn’t far fetched when you think about it. It’s no secret that the power grid is extremely vulnerable to infrastructural failure, sabotage, and even cyber attacks. Experts have been sounding the warning alarms for years. I have personally been told by an individual who worked in the power industry for some time that the grid is more fragile than anyone would ever believe. The corruption within power companies themselves only exacerbates the problem further. There have been major blackouts around the world particularly in Europe caused by cyber attackers. Take for example the relatively recent and unprecedented wide-scale power outage in Western Ukraine in December 2015 which was caused by malicious cyber attackers. You can read the full article of what happened here at Wired.com. Basically, hackers hijacked a hi-tech computer system that controlled a major substation and opened all the breakers which subsequently took the substation offline. The result was more than 230,000 resident left in total darkness. And as if that weren’t enough, the attackers also disabled backup power supplies to two of the three distribution centers, leaving operators themselves stumbling in the dark.
The Wired.com article states:
The hackers who struck the power centers in Ukraine—the first confirmed hack to take down a power grid—weren’t opportunists who just happened upon the networks and launched an attack to test their abilities; according to new details from an extensive investigation into the hack, they were skilled and stealthy strategists who carefully planned their assault over many months, first doing reconnaissance to study the networks and siphon operator credentials, then launching a synchronized assault in a well-choreographed dance.
“It was brilliant,” says Robert M. Lee, who assisted in the investigation. Lee is a former cyber warfare operations officer for the US Air Force and is the co-founder of Dragos Security, a critical infrastructure security company. “In terms of sophistication, most people always [focus on the] malware he says. “To me what makes sophistication is logistics and planning and operations and … what’s going on during the length of it. And this was highly sophisticated.”
Ukraine was quick to point the finger at Russia for the assault. Lee shies away from attributing it to any actor but says there are clear delineations between the various phases of the operation that suggest different levels of actors worked on different parts of the assault. This raises the possibility that the attack might have involved collaboration between completely different parties—possibly cybercriminals and nation-state actors.
“This had to be a well-funded, well-trained team. … but it didn’t have to be a nation-state,” he says. It could have started out with cybercriminals getting initial access to the network, then handing it off to nation-state attackers who did the rest.
The article also goes on to state that “…the control systems in Ukraine were surprisingly more secure than some in the US since they were well-segmented from the control center business networks with robust firewalls. But in the end they still weren’t secure enough—workers logging remotely into the SCADA network, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition network that controlled the grid, weren’t required to use two-factor authentication, which allowed the attackers to hijack their credentials and gain crucial access to systems that controlled the breakers.”
So there are people in this world who absolutely know what they are doing and have the full ability and resources necessary to carry out a synchronized attack on pretty much any power system anywhere in the world. They proved it in Ukraine and there is absolutely nothing stopping them from carrying it out again – perhaps in a different place. They are just waiting for the right opportunity. Such is the prowess of cybercriminals.
We all rely on electricity for basic everyday needs. I think it is one thing that we take so for granted. We turn on a switch and the light comes on instantly. We rely on it to power our lights, home appliances, our computers, mobile devices, power tools and even the infrastructure that keeps the mobile phone network and the Internet going. Hospitals, medical life-support equipment, modern communications systems, radio stations, and TV networks are all powered by electricity. Hospitals and TV/radio stations only have at least a week’s (sometimes even less) fuel supply to power a backup generator. Without electricity, life support equipment will cease to function which means that people dependent on such devices (e.g. ventilators) will die, doctors will be unable to perform life-saving surgery, emergency services and agencies will be unable to communicate for extended periods without significant backup resources (which by the way many agencies actually don’t have due to lack of funding) and TV/radio stations will be unable to bring us important news updates on the situation.
In fact so much these days is dependent totally on electricity. What would we do without electricity?!
Ham Radio – When All Else Fails
I would now like to introduce you to amateur radio, also more commonly known as ‘HAM radio’, as a reliable form of communication in a major crisis when everything else fails.
Throughout history, ham radio operators have maintained a vital communication lifeline in major disasters and emergencies. In times of crisis, during both natural and man-made disasters, Amateur Radio is often used for emergency communication when landline phones, mobile phones, and other conventional modes or communication fail or are congested (and believe me it doesn’t take much to cause it).
International calamities where ham radio operators have been involved include:
9/11 World Trade Centre Attacks – 2001
Hurricane Katrina – 2005
Hurricane Sandy – 2012
Haiti Earthquake – 2010
Nepal Earthquakes – 2015
Boston Marathon Bombings – 2013
Cyclone Tracy – 1974 (Darwin, Australia)
Newcastle Earthquake – 1989 (Newcastle, Australia)
Black Saturday Bushfires (Victoria, Australia)
Ash Wednesday Bushfires 1983 (South Australia/Victoria, Australia)
and heaps of others.
Ham radio operators have always been there to serve the community and help out where they can in disaster relief activities. This includes relaying vital information in and out of the affected area(s), supporting and backing up communication systems for first responders and secondary responders (e.g. emergency relief and disaster organizations such as Red Cross and Salvation Army, etc.
Ham radio operators are one of the very few people on this planet other than the military and emergency agencies who have access to communications when all else fails. There are thousands of them around the globe and I am proud to be one. This network of hams ensures that there will always be people who you can obtain information from.
In a major emergency such as one affecting a major region, the entire state or even the whole nation we ham radio operators will self-activate and begin monitoring emergency frequencies. We will be listening for crucial information and also passing on that information to those who need to know. Some ham radio operators are part of organized amateur radio civil emergency networks. This means that we can be activated in an orderly fashion in a time of need (e.g. police request us to officially activate). Some are full members of these organizations, others like me are casual members who are not full members as such and thus only sign up to respond in a time of need and do not participate in other activities of the organization. Our state police agency has ham radio gear in their comms center and is the coordinating agency for a disaster involving conventional communications going down. This means that in a major state of emergency we can communicate with the police via specified amateur radio frequencies as per the mutual contingency plans.
The reason why ham radio is so reliable is that it doesn’t depend on modern technology. Instead, it uses 19 and 20th-century technology which is highly reliable and fail-proof.
Ham radio is your number one choice when all else fails. It requires a license to use and equipment can be costly but secondhand equipment may be an option. Having said that it is definitely worth it and beyond a shadow of a doubt, an absolute lifesaver in an emergency.
I’m not going to go into detail on how to get licensed and all the basics of getting started as a ham – there’s plenty of information on how to do that on the Internet – but what I do want to say is that you should definitely consider thinking about becoming a ham radio operator as it is the only reliable way to receive important information that may be crucial to making the right decisions and plans of action in a crisis.
Apart from becoming a ham radio operator, check out my other article “Blackout! Preparing for Power Outages” that I wrote a little while ago for more tips on how to prepare for this very real scenario.
I sincerely hope this article has caused you to stop and seriously think about whether you are actually prepared for an attack on our power grid. If you are unprepared, hopefully, you will take steps to be prepared to some degree. Remember, it is not far-fetched and is a very real threat to our way of life.