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Hearing Shows How 'Military-Style' Raid On Calif. Power Station Spooks U.S. 396

Posted by timothy
from the what-was-bruce-schneier-doing-that-evening dept.
Lasrick writes "Interesting piece about April's physical attack on a power station near San Jose, California, that now looks like a dress rehearsal for future attacks: Quote: 'When U.S. officials warn about "attacks" on electric power facilities these days, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a computer hacker trying to shut the lights off in a city with malware. But a more traditional attack on a power station in California has U.S. officials puzzled and worried about the physical security of the the electrical grid--from attackers who come in with guns blazing.'"
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Hearing Shows How 'Military-Style' Raid On Calif. Power Station Spooks U.S.

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  • by istartedi (132515) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:11PM (#45809225) Journal

    First, unless I got the wrong link it's no surprise the video didn't help further the investigation. All you see on it are some flashes of light that are sparks and/or muzzle flashes, and maybe some shadowy figures. Oh wait, I just need to zoom in and keep hitting "enhance" and I'll get their faces.

    Second, at the end of TFA they compare the cost of armoring transformers at one station with the entire cyber-security budget. How about an apples-to-apples comparison, like, you know... one involving the cost of armoring transformers at all the stations?

    • by crymeph0 (682581)
      A note about the video at http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_23388359/san-jose-sheriffs-office-release-video-attack-pg [mercurynews.com] (linked in TFA) for those of you using Firefox with NoScript on Windows: I had to allow mercurynews.com and brightcove.com.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The best approach is to deal with the motivations of terrorists. Find out what they want, why they want it, and persuade them that violence is not the best way to get it.

      • They often want chaos. How do you convince anarchists that chaos is bad?

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Anarchists want an end to use of violence to get what you want. Rule is based on violence. It is an end goal of reducing the role of violence in our lives that clearly can't suddenly happen under the current circumstances.

        • by pla (258480) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:50PM (#45809389) Journal
          They often want chaos. How do you convince anarchists that chaos is bad?

          Although we certainly have enemies that just want to give us a papercut at any expense, most terrorists do not count as mere anarchists. They hate us for usually-pretty-valid reasons (even if we can't say the same for their methods).

          Also, anarchists don't want "chaos". They want a lack of (or at least minimal-needed-to-keep-us-from-killing-each-other) government. Huge difference. One amounts to a comic book villain; the other considers what we have to keep us in check as slightly worse than having nothing at all.
        • by pepty (1976012)
          How many terrorist attacks which caused deaths or at least millions of dollars in damages in the US in the past 30 years were committed by anarchists?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by phantomfive (622387)

        The best approach is to deal with the motivations of terrorists. Find out what they want, why they want it, and persuade them that violence is not the best way to get it.

        OK, let's try that method with Osama Bin Ladin.

        His goal was in brief to become a Caliph over all the muslim world, instigate a fight between the believers and non-believers, and then beat down the non-believers. (one source [theage.com.au]).

        How exactly do you persuade him that violence is not the best way to get that goal? I am really interested in hearing what you have to say.

  • Yawns. (Score:5, Funny)

    by MobSwatter (2884921) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:12PM (#45809227)
    [Puts candles on grocery list]
    • by jd (1658)

      Scented or unscented? Basic or self-relighting? With or without wax skulls carved on the outside?

      These are important decisions!

  • Congressional members, regulators and even the "terrorists", amateurs all.
  • by whoever57 (658626) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:16PM (#45809239) Journal
    What is it about the threat of "cyber attacks" that makes people so worried about them? Even in the face of evidence that physical attacks can be successful and easy?
    • by maliqua (1316471)

      violent attacks require much more commitment since the a highly probably outcome is dying. a botched cyber attack results in trials and comfy first world prisons likely in min or medium security with visitation

    • by fermion (181285)
      The perception is that a physical attack is expensive and risky while a cyber attack can be cheap and have little risk. This physical attack risks two people lives and only did limited damage. To do more damage you have to hire and train more people willing to be killed, and get them into place simultaneously before security responds.

      The reality is that utilities have control systems that can be accessed from the outside by a well funded attacker, then that is a huge risk. Cyber attack can also be used

      • by cusco (717999)

        hire and train more people willing to be killed, and get them into place simultaneously before security responds.

        Are you under the impression that utilities employ squads of armed tactical response teams to respond to attacks? The utility that I used to work with had a total of 10 contracted security guards, none of them armed, only two of whom might be able to fight their way out of a wet paper bag, to provide 24x7 coverage over an entire county including two very remote power dams. Of the half dozen la

  • IANAT (terrorist) (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paiute (550198) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:18PM (#45809247)
    But if I were, I wouldn't run a test of my method using live fire to get my target all forewarned.

    But if I were a bored teenager who thinks he is an anarchist, I could go out one night with my .30-06 and hole a few transformers just to watch the man overreact.
    • by Wonko the Sane (25252) * on Sunday December 29, 2013 @12:00AM (#45809415) Journal
      If you were a business looking to make money on selling security equipment to power companies, or if you were an up-and-coming policitial player looking for a reason to start a new agency you can be the head of, you'd do the same thing.
    • Re:IANAT (terrorist) (Score:5, Informative)

      by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Sunday December 29, 2013 @12:19AM (#45809489)
      Actually, if you were serious about acting against a particular target, then finding out the methods, timing, degree, and flexibility of their response is indeed important, especially if your own resources are particularly limited or if the location is inimical to withdrawal (which actually could be used for a secondary attack against responders, depending on the outcome of the "test" attack). These sorts of things are not nearly so straightforward or intuitive as you imagine. They're not called "strategy" and "tactics" without a reason.
      • by paiute (550198)

        Actually, if you were serious about acting against a particular target, then finding out the methods, timing, degree, and flexibility of their response is indeed important,

        And I would, just not by attacking it. I would have a fake accident or stage some kind of shooting nearby but not related to the target to test responses.

  • by TerminaMorte (729622) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:23PM (#45809269) Homepage
    Good job guys
    • they *were* listening to the power grid. but after a few hours of 60.0hz, they got bored and changed the channel.

      can't blame them, can you?

    • No man, now all they have to do is sift through all of the data to find these guys - no problem.

      In the meantime, I've got a bail of hay that covers the state of Texas, and then some, about 20 feet thick. I'm sure that there's a needle in there somewhere, and I'm going to find it. Any bets on who'll accomplish their goal first?
  • This? Again? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jd (1658) <.imipak. .at. .yahoo.com.> on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:38PM (#45809335) Homepage Journal

    We've known the US has crappy infrastructure since, well, as close to forever as matters in America.

    Attacks on a power station or substation would be immaterial if the grid was a grid, redundancy was built into the system, and getting things done was a higher priority than ego strokes and profit margins. (Yeah, heresy, I know.)

    The moment you deliberately create single points of failure is the moment you hand out invites to nutcases, lunatics, wannabe cowboys and the rest of the US security infrastructure*. The moment you make such violence nothing more than a public nuisance, something not even worth a writeup in the local paper, is the moment it stops being interesting for the fringe groups to do.

    *Yes, the local crackhead with the M16 and armoured personnel carrier is the "militia" the Constitution speaketh of. They are part of the national defence system. Due to two major wars inflicting a massive drain on reserves and an exceptional loss of forces due to PTSD and injuries, said crackheads form an increasingly large part of the regular forces, police and intelligence services. Frankly, I'd be far more concerned about a coup from within than a bunch of moonshine-laden rednecks who have watched too many Dukes of Hazard episodes.

    Of course, given the NSA can dictate terms to the President, Congress and Federal judges, the coup might have already happened. Would you notice if it had? Would you care?

    • Re:This? Again? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by VortexCortex (1117377) <`VortexCortex' ` ... -retrograde.com'> on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:49PM (#45809385) Homepage

      the coup might have already happened. Would you notice if it had? Would you care?

      Yes, and yes. [wikipedia.org]
      Whether I would have the power to do anything about it is an altogether different matter.
      Rallying support would require some huge screw-up, for instance: If someone leaked the details about what Room 641A is for. [wikipedia.org]

    • Of course, given the NSA can dictate terms to the President, Congress and Federal judges, the coup might have already happened. Would you notice if it had? Would you care?

      Sorry, I'm going to have to ask for some evidence on that one since it is not a "given."

      People would notice when the next elections weren't held, or the person winning the vote didn't take office. Since elections are locally run in the US somebody would notice if the vote tallies weren't reported right.

  • by evil_aaronm (671521) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:42PM (#45809351)
    What's the likelihood that something like this will happen? Are we to fear China sending a crack team of commandos to disable our power grid? Someone could knock down high-tension power lines, too. Do we fence off every last one of those?
    • by AHuxley (892839)
      China has the entrepreneurial skill and cash to:
      Buy the site, bring it up to state and federal standards and correctly spread the costs and lucrative profits over years of local usage.
      Teams of commandos are usually tracked by the DIA, CIA and many others :)
      The FBI has fully infiltrated all domestic groups...
      The main fear is that there is federal and state security cash on the table and new/old domestic/"US" created foreign owned front companies/security firms fear missing out.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday December 28, 2013 @11:43PM (#45809355) Homepage

    Building cinder-block walls around transformers in the transmission power grid might not be a bad idea. Cheap, and if concrete-filled, will stop most ammo. After a decade of anti-terrorism hype, it's surprising this hasn't been done yet. Most anti-terrorism studies of electric power grids mention transformers in the transmission system as a vulnerable point. It's not necessary to heavily protect the whole switchyard. Switchgear is easier and cheaper to replace than transformers, and less vulnerable. The transformers occupy only a small fraction of substation area.

    Transformer substations are something that people, even in the utility industry, don't think about much. They're very reliable, need little attention, and are usually unmanned. So they tend to be ignored unless there's a problem.

    It's embarrassing that PG&E has such poor surveillance of a major substation. The video, grainy analog black and white with slow VHS-type artifacts, means they haven't upgraded since the 1980s or 1990s. It's not like color HD cameras are expensive any more.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      Think back to how the US plain old telephone service and other unique US data networks where hardened for nuclear issues during the cold war- super good funding for thick walls, no windows, deep sites, lots of new sites, lots of extra local redundant power supply options, redundancy, costly fault "rebuild" vs economical basic service restoration.
      Well paid, unionized staff for generations for at many sites that could have been cheaply automated over time.
      The gov cash flow is back :)
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 29, 2013 @01:05AM (#45809639)

      Building cinder-block walls around transformers in the transmission power grid might not be a bad idea.

      But that won't stop the terrorists from throwing burlap sacks full of squirrels over those walls.

    • Building cinder-block walls around transformers in the transmission power grid might not be a bad idea. Cheap, and if concrete-filled, will stop most ammo.

      It might prevent a single .30-06 bullet (not to mention some powerful yet still common hunting round, like .300 WSM) from reaching what's beyond it, but most of the block would be destroyed [youtu.be] in the process, allowing further shots to pass through.

  • and they are paid good with the right to shoot on site.

  • by Zamphatta (1760346) on Sunday December 29, 2013 @12:13AM (#45809455) Homepage
    The NSA will catch them before anything goes seriously wrong, and that's why we allow the gov't to spy on us. It's a service we're paying for. Remember guys, if the gov't spies on its own innocent people then they will be able to stop terror attacks and stuff against the people. So, there's nothing to worry about, the government has already got our backs and they won't let anything happen to us.
  • The current strategy of the U.S. in regards to infrastructure defense is simple - defense in depth.

    By spending very little on road maintenance, it's highly likely terrorists will either get a flat tire on the way to attack a power station, or the guns will cook off a few rounds when a bump is hit likely harming the car or terrorists.

    As a last ditch defense, the federally required signs not to pee on high-voltage transformers will be removed, thereby cooking the terrorists when they get there as they are sur

  • That's impossible! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blindseer (891256) <blindseer AT earthlink DOT net> on Sunday December 29, 2013 @12:45AM (#45809583)

    The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility.

    That's not possible. Someone must be lying. I know this because California banned all those evil high powered rifles.

    I once saw an offer to tour a nuclear power plant. I thought that would be fun, I never saw the inside of a nuclear power plant before. I imagined it would be much like the coal fired plants I toured, I doubted I'd get near anything even remotely radioactive, but I still thought it would be quite interesting and educational. I then read the fine print on the tour invite. To go on the tour I'd have to submit to a background check, I believe that included getting fingerprinted. I lost all interest.

    I didn't think I'd have any problems passing a background check, I've done them before for things like getting in the military and getting government work. I just didn't like the idea of having to take my time going through that again for something as mundane as a tour of a power plant.

    While on vacation one summer I happened across a sign for a hydroelectric power plant. I recall it was called Raccoon Lake but a quick Google search tells me that is in the middle of Indiana and I'm pretty sure the dam I was at was in Tennessee. Anyway, I had time so I took a detour to see if I could take a tour or something. I got there and found the visitors center. I had a look around, they had a video playing on continuous loop showing the history of the area and how the dam worked. The video ended with a message to ask for a tour. I then asked to get a tour. I was told tours were no longer offered "for security reasons".

    I recall seeing a Youtube video recently about nuclear power where some nuclear power plant operator hated the security policies that banned tours. He wanted to show people how safe these power plants are. I understand where he's coming from, if nuclear power is so safe and secure then why can't we see that for ourselves? I can just imagine what people are thinking, do they have something to hide that they can't let me in?

    While they have these security policies in place for the power plants the wires leaving them are totally insecure. I remember driving down the interstate and seeing these HUGE power lines going overhead. It was not long after getting denied a tour of the hydro plant "for security reasons" that I saw those power lines so the first thought through my head was just how easy it would be to take out that power line. The foundations for the towers that ran overhead were just out in the middle of someone's corn field. There was a fence around the field but it was just something to keep cattle from wandering in or out, not anything that any able bodied adult couldn't climb over or through.

    The people that secure the power in this country have some seriously skewed priorities. We can't have people tour a hydroelectric plant "for security reasons" but some one can cut the communications to a power plant, shoot up some transformers, and no one knows who did it.

    • by Firethorn (177587)

      While they have these security policies in place for the power plants the wires leaving them are totally insecure. I remember driving down the interstate and seeing these HUGE power lines going overhead. It was not long after getting denied a tour of the hydro plant "for security reasons" that I saw those power lines so the first thought through my head was just how easy it would be to take out that power line. The foundations for the towers that ran overhead were just out in the middle of someone's corn field. There was a fence around the field but it was just something to keep cattle from wandering in or out, not anything that any able bodied adult couldn't climb over or through.

      Those huge power lines are extremely high voltage AC. Taking one out without explosives(controlled item, probably 'better' for the terrorists to use them to bomb a mall or something) without frying yourself, probably before you cause significant damage, requires specialized tools. We're talking voltage so high that things you'd normally consider 'insulating' aren't. They'll actually use helicopters while wearing special suits to maintain the wires - because any connection to ground equals 'you're toast'.

      • by blindseer (891256)

        I didn't mean scaling up the tower and sawing through the wires with a pocket knife by "taking them out". I was thinking of ramming them with a large dozer, or using explosives like you suggested. Some more suicidal methods that came to mind, cutting through the support structure with a torch, running into the wires with a small airplane, or short them out by launching wires over them. Another idea was just a redneck with a rifle and a lot of time, just shoot at insulators and wires from a safe distance

        • by bidule (173941)

          But you see, rebuilding a down tower or two is a quick task. These things happen regularly and as long as the power station is fine, it should be back up in less than a week. Blasting bridges or overpasses would be a bigger pain to fix. And neither of those are sexy enough for our terrorist friends: not enough bang for the bucks.

          A guided tour would offer more than what google satellite maps does, I don't know how critical that extra information could be and maybe the "security reasons" is just because they'

    • I'm in (near) a giant city -- 8 million people -- with a very well-known international airport, as you would imagine. Also as you would imagine, airport security is what it is: completely housed inside the building.

      My friend used to say that from the roof of the parking garage -- outside of airport security -- you're only about 200 yards from the runway. Any number of weapons can take out a plane from that distance. But it got worse a couple of years ago, twice.

      On the way to a business client meeting, at

    • That's not possible. Someone must be lying. I know this because California banned all those evil high powered rifles.

      They banned the evil assault rifles. The evil high-powered tactical sniper rifles (that can shoot through bulletproof vests like knife through butter, and allow accurate shoots at hapless victims at distances as far as a mile away!) are still out there [remington.com]. But worry not, this will eventually be fixed, too.

  • by holophrastic (221104) on Sunday December 29, 2013 @01:00AM (#45809621)

    It's always been the case that a more advanced foe can be defeated by a much simpler foe through indirect attacks on infrastructure, acruing nothing more than a huge expense for the advanced foe. This is no different.

    You can't possibly defend something like the power grids we have today. It's just not possible. They are large, they are disparate, they are expensive, they are sensitive. What's more, they are each vital and completely non-redundant. And they are also literally everywhere. You can take out a curb-side box in seconds with a pickup truck, and kill power to a neighbourhood for a day.

    No one's going to build the redundancy to withstand any destruction -- it's simply far too expensive.

    But that's true of all centralized systems based on distribution -- which includes gasolene, by the way. That's actually the advantage of a centralized system. No kidding it doesn't stand up to warfare.

    So, start supporting neighbourhood nuclear mini-reactors -- like your neighbourhood water towers -- or a bus-load of solar panels per house. Anything less won't be redundant, and hence will be easily attacked.

  • by sjames (1099) on Sunday December 29, 2013 @02:00AM (#45809797) Homepage

    The real danger is the Squirrel Liberation Army. Their suicide operatives have caused a lot more blackouts than terrorists with rifles. Of course, rednecks celebrating with rifles is in the running as well.

  • From the incident story, it appears to be two persons who chose a property damage target for the purpose of minimizing the risk of prosecution for any construction or prosecutorial exaggeration regarding the potential or accidental killing of a guard or workman.

    The recent tactic being developed after school shootings is for the responding authority to promptly engage the apparent assailant by the use of gunfire directed at the assailant. For those assailants who are arrested live, the district attorney spar

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