Thursday, September 05, 2013

"Gridlock": former US Senator pens novel warning that cyberattack could destroy the electric power grid, permanently

Authors: Byron L Dorgan and David Hagberg

Title: “Gridlock

Publication: New York: Forge, 2013. ISBN 978-0-7653-2738-3, 431 pages, hardcover (also available as e-book), 4 Parts, 76 chapters with Prologue and Epilogue

Amazon link is here
Mr. Dorgan is a former US Senator and Representative from North Dakota, and Mr. Hagberg is a former U.S. Air Force cryptographer.
Let’s cut to the chase.  The authors propose a scenario where enemies of the American people (and it seems to be our “way of life” as much as our government) – specifically Venezuela and Iran (and maybe Putin’s Russia) – try to cripple the US power grid permanently with a single computer work coded by a “gifted” and sociopathic hacker in Amsterdam.  It’ a little confusing as to how it is delivered, and I’ll get back to that in a moment. There’s also a physical attack on a transformer farm in South Texas, a concept which sounds a lot more probable. 
The book is fast paced, written in short chapters, and has a number of character, including a hired Russian assassin, and a young sheriff in North Dakota, himself a Special Forces Afghanistan combat hero who lost a leg to IED but knows how to use his prosthesis as an additional weapon – along with his girl friend, a determined journalist. 
The novel refers to Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad, both out now, as forming an alliance to teach an arrogant American people a lesson.  It’s interesting that Senator Dorgan sees “rogue” states (which would include North Korea and now Syria) as a bigger threat now than decentralized terrorists downloading do-it-yourself materials from the Internet (as with Boston). 

The authors lay out a scenario where occasional rural vandalism against power stations happen, as from disgruntled ranchers.  In this scenario, a lineman is sent to repair damage to a truss in a river valley near the Badlands in western North Dakota (I was there myself in 1998).  Through a computer hack, he is electrocuted when he thinks the line is de-energized.  (Can you imagine doing the job of a lineman?  I couldn't do it.)  Nearby visitors are sniped, setting up the chase.  A good part of the novel text does involve the hunting and chasing of the Russian assassin Yuri Makarov (who reminds me of Clive Barker’s Pie ‘o’ Pah from “Imajica”).  The action is crisp and well-written, but considerable (and happens in many locations and countries).  This book would generate a four-hour screenplay, which could present a problem when Hollywood gets it (unless it’s a TV or cable miniseries).  Who plays the nimble sheriff Nate Osborne?  Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  Ryan Gosling?   You wonder if Mark Parrish, Lucas Till or Reid Ewing should try for a part like this.  Oh, maybe Till could play the hacker.  How do you deal with Nate’s leg loss and prosthesis in filming?  For Makarov, you need an actor who normally seems meaner.  Maybe Ciaran Hinds.  Directing him would even be harder.

Okay, let me get back on subject.  (I’d love to cast my own novel.)  How was the virus delivered?  If it was conveyed by a flash drive (I think that’s how Stuxnet was placed in Iran), you need a “saboteur”, Hitchcock style, inside the electric utility industry.  (The Prologue of the novel hints at this, as does the denouement, but in between the details aren’t shown.)  What I don’t buy is the idea that a remote hacker could transmit a virus through the Internet to a power grid station.  That would say that a hacker could log on to my laptop (where I type this review) and use my Internet connection (soon to be used to upload it) to reach the power station.  I think that this simply should not be possible.  There is a branch of mathematics called graph theory, part of topology, which can calculate whether such a connected path exists.  I think it should not.
As for the “blackmail” and the announced rolling blackouts, why can’t the power industry, with the help of the NSA if needed, neutralize the virus since it knows what it is and knows that it is coming. 

Dorgan is right in suggesting that replacing the three large transformers in Texas would be very time consuming, because in part they have to come from India.  But that tells me that the biggest threat to the grid comes from physical attack, or perhaps an electromagnetic pulse (as in “One Second After”, reviewed July 20, 2012), or even a severe geomagnetic storm.   A physical attack could come from large scale vandalism and conventional explosives, or even from radio frequency flux guns.  I don’t think that the electric power industry is as well prepared for these more physical threats as it is for computer viruses which would have to get through some super secure server farms (one of which is nearby in Ashburn, Loudoun County VA; there are various others in North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Colorado, etc). 

Dorgan says he has changed some details about the power industry so as not to write a “blueprint” for an attack.   
Wikipedia attribution link for Theodore Roosevelt National Park 

Update: Oct. 9, 2013

Look at this story about power grid attacks in Arkansas in the real world, much as in this novel, link

Update: Feb. 5, 2014

The Wall Street Journal discusses an attack on the Metfcalf power substation near San Jose CA on April 16, 2016, blog posting on the Issues Blog today, WSJ link here

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