Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Conspiracy Theory

The Wall Street Journal published a story today about Chinese and Russian cyberspies hacking into utility companies' computer systems. This report is flying fast and furious around the Net, and I just got a Forward email about the "syberspies." Folks, if you're going to forward something like that along to me, first of all, don't. But if you just have to forward it, please make sure it's spelled correctly.

Blackout I saw a mention of the big blackout of 2003, in which a person believed it to be the result of a terrorist attack, and used that blackout as an illustration of how vulnerable our electric grid is to such attacks.

Some of you who are new here probably don't know that Ken has a degree in Electrical Engineering, and works as a project manager for AEP, one of the largest utility companies in the country. When that blackout happened, it was a big deal in the company, because they were the ones that essentially stopped the blackout from continuing west, when its automated protection systems disconnected completely from the grid. Ken got news of the causes of the situation before the official investigation findings were released, and it was pretty interesting to hear about what happened and why.

You know what caused the blackout? Increased usage during a hot summer day led power lines to heat up and sag into trees that weren't trimmed well enough. As soon as lines touched the trees, they shorted, resulting in power being shunted to other lines, in turn making Scarecrow adthem hotter and more unstable. These fluctuations resulted in a cascade of shutdowns and outages, exacerbated by both computer failure and operator failure. AEP's automated protection systems recognized what was happening with the grid, and disconnected, stopping the cascade and preventing a surge for demand on AEP's grid, which would have resulted in even more outages.

It all came back to untrimmed trees. Now, unless a terrorist cell infiltrated the companies involved in trimming the trees and maliciously left the trees in question untrimmed while they took a long lunch, there was absolutely no terrorist involvement there whatsoever. That's the problem I have with conspiracy theories. I'd rather find out the rational explanation of something than chalk it up to nebulous threats and nefarious plots, à la Art Bell.

Blackout2 Does that mean that utility companies' computer systems are unhackable? Depends on the system. The websites accessible by consumers for information, bill paying, etc., would probably be vulnerable to the same hackers that get into banking, hospital, and other systems. The systems that control operation, however, are by regulation separate from the other systems. The NRC's (the plant that Ken is involved with is nuclear) cyber security regulations mandate that operational systems be separate from administrative systems which include such components as consumer-accessible sites. It is impossible to access operational systems unless you are physically at the system itself.

So am I worried about terrorists hacking into our accounting systems and wreaking a little havoc there? I suppose it's possible, but it's not something I lose sleep over. It seems that there are worse things that they could come up with. Am I worried about them hacking into our operation systems and taking over control of our power plants and electric grid?



  1. I recieved that same e-mail (syberspies) and deleted it. I figured it was written by someone with too much time on thier hands. But I find your hubby's job interesting. Nice to have inside information.
    Hugs, Laini

  2. I am Kengineer, and I approve this message :o)

  3. When I get an email with such an obvious case of misspelling, I hit delete.
    That said, I nearly fell outta my chair, thinking of a bunch of Al Qaeda operatives keeping trees from getting trimmed, or, for heaven's sake, adding limbs TO trees!
    Stop. The. Madness.

  4. Oh, Beth, you don't know the truth. It wasn't a tree-trimming problem. It was the Great Gray Squirrel Conspiracy that caused the blackout. Al Qaeda bred supersquirrels, trained them, anesthetized them, and smuggled them into the country in crates labeled as little squirrel coats for pampered chihuahuas. Once in the country, they woke up and were distributed throughout the east, where they climbed electric poles and chewed through power lines. With a husband in the business, I would think you would have known this. :-)

  5. Hi Beth,
    Very illuminating, thanks! As usual, these darned Conspiracy Theorists were barking up the wrong tree. I hear they've moved-on to a new crusade: Trying to convince everyone that spell-checking technology is an immoral plot, designed to drive a wedge between the youth of America and the A,B,C's ...

  6. I remember that black out well and heaved a sigh of relief when I got home that evening as the traffic lights were out and I cross some major intersections. I've noticed that alot of trees were trimmed after that. I'm sure the power companies would be aware of any problem if everyone else is getting that e-mail.

  7. OMG- Notwood Beth and Kengineer! I love having a name for him because I always kinda felt he was just begin cheated as just plain "Ken".... no and foreverafter he will be known as "Kengineer" by Miss G!
    And, as usual, you are botht face of scientific reason. I'm so glad we have folks like you worrying about stuff like this.... so Miss G can focus on makeup and hairspray!

  8. I guess it's not something I ever worry about either. So far, my email address, I suppose since it's relatively new, is free from spam and forwards. Thankfully! I have one person that sends me jokes and I usually find them pretty funny, so that I don't mind.
    As for those syberspies....wasn't there supposed to be some ((shudder)) worm thing taking us all down on the 1st? Rumors and fanatical impressions.
    So for now, I'll just rest assured because I've got Ken backing us all up!!!

  9. LOL, I think I have to agree with Laurel's theory on the subject. :-)

    When I get e-mail like that I hit the delete. On rare ocassions I will read it just to amuse myself.


  10. First off, I love that commercial with the scarecrow. It always puts a smile on my face. And secondly, whenever I try and imagine where I'd want to take a vacation (most of the places I want to visit, I don't have to leave the US to see) I always look at one of those satelite shots at night and I'd like to be in one of the spots that has the least amount of lights coming from it. I'd love to see what the stars look like with that little amount of man made light mussing them up.

  11. That makes sense. I heard about this getting ready for bed last night and I did the "eye roll" ~ of course TX is like "our grid is totally separate from the rest of the continental U.S. of A. so there is a large likelihood that it will never bother us" garbage. Sheesh. So, while there is always a "chance" I will take this with a grain of salt per usual. LOL. Hugs, Teresa

  12. This reminds me of the issue with the attack on 9/11, which to me was more a breakdown due to lack of communication between the various services. I keep remembering that there was a FBI branch on top of the cat in Ariz. taking flying lessons, but I reasoned that no one took them seriously because they were from Minn. and they were making the observations.

    Had the cats dead to rights, only it was an attitude that let their nefarious project proceed.

    To hear that this is something that could have been avoided if there was enough tree's getting trimmed, is appalling. Ounce of prevention is worth the pound of cure. The rush to 'retrofit', won't make what happened go away, which is why you get bad legislation like the Patriot Act.

    In short, the big black out that had me and the Mook's stuck at Cedar Point could have been prevented if due diligence were taken with people simply doing their jobs in a timely manner.


  13. I'm always cautious of e-mail forwards, & I run them through Snopes and since neither site has everything. I would estimate that a good one-third are bogus. I haven't received this particular e-mail.

    Our computer networks are attacked several thousand times a day by foreign countries attempting to hack into it. If memory serves correctly, mainland China was the top source or one of the top sources of the attacks. I haven't of any successful attacks.

    In the case of the '03 blackout, one only has to think (briefly) of the terrorist mentality to conclude the blackout was not a terrorist attack. Terrorists want to bring attention to their cause & are proud of committing terrorist acts. So, instead of being subtle & leaving us guessing, they would bomb a power plant for example in order to create as much havoc as possible & create as much fear in the population as they can.

    Your detailed explanation as to the real cause is excellent. Over the years, I've been rather well versed in this area. I have an uncle who retired from a nuclear power plant in Oak Ridge, TN and my grandfather was a master electrician who at one time was THE electrical troubleshooter for the quarry operations from Georgia to Ohio. Anytime either one of them talked about the technical details of their jobs & explained things, I always listened. It's very, very interesting how all of it works.


  14. Yes, if I was a terrorist, the electrical grid would not be on the top of my list. However, I do believe shutting down the internet would be terrorizing for many, many Americans, and shutting down the grid could be a way of doing that.
    Great stuff, Beth.

  15. Nice post. I have as much trouble with conspiracy theories as coincidence theories.

  16. It is quite obvious that the trees themselves are the terrorists. I say cut them all down. Rid the country of this danger. Plant hedges instead.

  17. Cyberspies? (Oh, sorry, I mean "syberspies"?) That's the first I've heard of them. Glad I haven't received that email!


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?