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Electric Grid Vulnerable to Cyber Attack, Experts Warn

Bill Cotterell, Tallahassee Democrat, 6:43 a.m. EDT April 14, 2015

Rep. VasilindaAn enemy could kill millions by knocking out America's power grid with a nuclear bomb exploded in space, three national security experts told Florida legislators Monday.

It could even happen naturally, with a massive solar flare – as it did in 1859 – but back then, the only technology affected was the telegraph key. Today, everything, from washing machines to home computers and a giant generating plants, depends on microchips computer systems that could be rendered useless for years by an electro-magnetic pulse.

"If you knock out our electric grid, you don't just knock out the lights," former CIA Director James Woolsey told the Cybersecurity and EMP Legislative Working Group.

"We have 18 critical infrastructures – food, water, medical care, telecommunications, investments, the works – and all 17 of the others depend heavily on the electric grid," Woolsey said. "If you get up into months or years of the electric grid going down, you move us back not into the 1980s, pre-Web, but into the 1880s, pre-electric grid."

Peter Pry, director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, joined Woolsey in making presentations to the state officials.

Addressing the group by conference call, Woolsey said about one-third of the population would be "in line of sight" of a nuclear device 30 miles above the Midwest. At 200 miles, he said, the entire country would be affected by an EMP.

"That would take out a very high share of our phones, computers, washing machines – everything that has a computer chip in it, which is pretty much everything these days," said Woolsey, who was CIA chief 1993-95. "Very few of us have enough seeds and water pump handles and whatever you'd need to lead a very simple life in the 19th century."

Gaffney and Pry, who appeared in person, said that without fresh water, medicines, food and transportation for months – maybe years – the social order would break down and millions would die. They said it takes years to replace a knocked-out power transformer.

Gaffney said both North Korea and Iran have shown an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and missiles that, theoretically, could be brought to the American coastline and launched.

"This isn't Flash Gordon. What we're talking about in terms of nuclear capability is unfortunately in many of the wrong hands around the world – and one more is in the offing — and that will probably catalyze still more," Gaffney said. "They're making no secret that this kind of capability is something that they aspire to, but also that they envision using against us."

The men said there are ways to reduce or even prevent cyber sabotage, including requiring surge protectors, capacitors that shunt power surges around plants and radiation shields. They estimated it would cost about $2 billion for the country to install such protections, but said the federal bureaucracy is hopelessly bogged down with conflicting authority shared by the military, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other agencies.

Cybersecurity groupReps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, invited state technology and disaster planners to the two-hour meeting in the House Office Building. Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon, and Danielle Alvarez, chief security officer for the Agency for State Technology, attended the session.

Pry said hardening the grid would be a good business opportunity for Florida. He said the space industry in Brevard County already has technological expertise in solar flares and rocketry.

After listening to the men, Pilon said, "it's all based in science. It's a real threat." As a conservative Republican, he said, he was not concerned about imposing needed regulations on the grid.

"There's nothing wrong with a regulation that protects the public and also protects the industry," said Pilon. "That's not over-regulation."

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said the meeting was "a good start" toward getting state government involved in the problem.

"These threats are a clear and present danger to the state of Florida that warrants an emergency response," she said. "A statewide blackout in Florida would have a devastating effect on the lives of Florida's citizens, as well as wreaking financial havoc on our economy."

Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

 


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