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Power United States

How Vulnerable Is Our Power Grid? 359

coreboarder writes "Recently it was divulged that the Brazilian power infrastructure was compromised by hackers. Then it was announced that it was apparently faulty equipment. A downplay to the global public or an honest clarification? Either way, it raises the question: how vulnerable are we, really? With winter and all its icy glory hurtling towards those of us in the northern hemisphere, how open are we to everything from terrorist threats to simple 'pay me or else' schemes?"
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How Vulnerable Is Our Power Grid?

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  • One word: Enron (Score:5, Informative)

    by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @10:39AM (#30060000)

    Hijacking the power grid and forcing entire states to pay ransom or suffer brownouts? Such a thing has never happened before! []

  • by rsmith-mac ( 639075 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @10:44AM (#30060046)

    Speaking of Brazilian power failures, Brazil had another major power failure yesterday. Power from the Itaipu dam was cut off, which apparently put millions of people in the dark as it generates something like 14GW. Itaipu blames the Brazilian grid, meanwhile Brazilian officials aren't sure what it was, but are protesting any idea that it was sabotage/hacking. Paraguay and Uruguay also get power from Itaipu and were similarly affected. []

  • by Extremus ( 1043274 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @10:55AM (#30060194)
    According some reports, it was probably caused by the weather. Two main high-voltage power lines faulted simultaneously, causing part of the system to shutdown for safety. So, no hackers this time, I guess.
  • Re:A bigger threat (Score:5, Informative)

    by plague3106 ( 71849 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @10:59AM (#30060260)

    Actually it was Enron illegally manipulating the market which lead to the rolling blackouts. Notice they stopped shortly after the collapse of Enron and the arrest of those that hatched the schemes.

    I read that link; appearly you think companies should be able to do whatever they want to public resources without restriction. I don't buy that nonsense, nor do I think corporations care about anything but squeezing money out of people. We allow them exist to serve a public good, not because they have any right to existence.

    The "bribing" described in the article was Eddison trying to convience the local government that it would be worth it to install an electric grid. He proved to be right, but not every idea that comes along would pan out like that. The government is supposed to represent the people, and the people shouldn't have the roads they paid for torn up at the whim of a corporation, so the corporration (or Eddison) needs to convince OUR representives that there's something in it for us.

  • by rift321 ( 1358397 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:11AM (#30060416) Journal

    Speaking as a controls engineer for a major utility contractor, the control systems for power plants are completely isolated from the internet... it's common sense. There are security consultants out there feeding FUD to the public about the vulnerability of these control systems to viruses planted (either knowingly or unknowingly) by plant personnel. Well, if someone had intimate knowledge of the software AND close ties to the operators AND really thought that bringing down the plant would be a good way screw everyone over, despite the fact that when things go wrong, all valves and systems return to a fail-safe position, AND once the software was re-installed, everything is easily restarted...

    Yeah, I guess it could happen. As far as the grid is concerned, I'm *guessing* that a lot of people were influenced by the same method of thinking.

    Look, if anyone really wants bring down the power grid, we should be worried about a physical attack WAY more than an electronic one. I just can't conceive of how our systems are as vulnerable as people say they are.

  • by rift321 ( 1358397 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:21AM (#30060538) Journal

    My opinion as a controls engineer for a utility contractor:

    The accusation that this was the work of hackers is ridiculous. Not only would such a job be extremely difficult to execute, but I doubt that, IF it were successfully executed, it would be easily returned to a working state.

    This has all the indications of poor maintenance of dielectrics, especially "sooty insulators." If a high-voltage dielectric became overly-dirty, a ground fault could easily occur with a short across the materials on the surface of the dielectric.

  • by C0vardeAn0nim0 ( 232451 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:28AM (#30060634) Journal

    I live in brasil, never heard anything about cracker being responsible for the blackouts in espirito santo in 2007. to tell the truth, the first time i heard about it was on the web a few days ago, reading blog posts about the 60min report.

    the minister of energy and the national system operator (the office that controls our power grid) already denied the "information" from the 60min show.

    IMHO, it's just another piece of typical american fear-mongering, probably aimed at selling some incredibly expensive, over-complicated and completelly unecessary "technology" to the government.

    more here [] (in portuguese).

    disclaimer: estadão is a reliable, reasonably unbiased brasilian news agency.

  • Re:One word: Enron (Score:5, Informative)

    by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:37AM (#30060778) Journal

    The military is it's own animal. But in 38 states [] (the blue and yellow ones on the map) you can easily obtain a concealed carry permit as a civilian, provided that you aren't a felon or mental case. In some of the remaining states you can also obtain one, though you may have to jump through additional hoops. The only two states where you absolutely can't get one are Illinois and Wisconsin.

    It's probable that in a few years that you will be able to obtain one in all 50 states. SCOTUS is on the verge of incorporating the 2nd amendment against the states. Once that happens we can begin to dismantle the unconstitutional restrictions placed on our right to keep and bear arms by some of the more urban states.

    Point being, that you have whatever chance you are willing to give yourself. Personally I carry everywhere that it's legal to do so. I hope and pray that I never have to use it. Should the day come though I won't be cowering under a desk waiting to be murdered by some mental case or Mumbai copy-cat.

  • Re:One word: Enron (Score:2, Informative)

    by MrMr ( 219533 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:38AM (#30060786)
    Only on Fox, and they call everything they don't like socialism.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:51AM (#30060980)

    Actually in Brazil 127V is the most prevalent 110V-like voltage. It is so because you can get round 220V between two phases - 127 * sqrt(3) = 220

    Normally it's fine even for imported machines, except the ones from Japan which are 100V-only.

  • Re:Who's We? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kiuas ( 1084567 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @11:53AM (#30061012)

    Actually, I think there are more people here from outside of the US (mainly Europe) than you think. I think it's closer to a 50-50 ratio. And this is why:

    Exhibit A) If you look at this poll [] you'll see that 43% of all voters chose the option "I Use Celsius, You Insensitive Clod!", which would obviously imply that they are not from the States.

    Exhibit B) I'm Finnish (been browsing /. actively for a couple of years now) and I know I'm by far not the only Finn lurking around here. Moreover, if you look at, for example, the stories that have something to do with the US healthcare system there always seems to be an abundance of Swedes, Brits, Canadians and (more rarely though) us Finns trying to explain how "socialist healthcare" really isn't such an infernal thing as some of you Americans think it is.

  • The system is interconnected, so the rest of the lines go down as a safety measure.

    Itaipu is responsible for roughly 20% of Brazil's power, though we have many other plants (not just hydro) in stand by and pretty much all of them interconnected. What happened yesterday was a transmission failure that led to a shutdown. Different from 99, when the reservoirs were empty and there simply wasn't enough power.

    No one really knows the cause of it yet, just speculations of two major lines going down.

    Yesterday's blackout was pretty scary, nevertheless. I thought it was the aliens for sure, but thankfully the radios still work.
  • Re:One word: Enron (Score:3, Informative)

    by Alex Pennace ( 27488 ) <> on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @12:08PM (#30061232) Homepage

    Hey now. Don't leave out FirstEnergy Corp, which managed to (through poor maintenance combined with efforts to hide rather than fix problems) take out electricity for Ohio, Ontario, Quebec, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England in 2003.

    Not really. FirstEnergy's ineptitude was one factor, but only a part of the perfect storm that led to the cascading failure in Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, (most of) New York and a (tiny) part of Connecticut (Quebec was unaffected). The big issues were the sudden tripping of a major Cleveland-area power station and corresponding deficit of reactive power in that area, and a control system that effectively stopped processing updates, leaving controllers in the dark about the actual state of the system.

  • Re:Pay me or else? (Score:3, Informative)

    by JWSmythe ( 446288 ) <> on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @12:15PM (#30061330) Homepage Journal

        I'd seen a couple news stories on that. For the most part, the sailors are sailors. They didn't sign up for, nor do they want, to take part in any combat. I have heard that some ships are hiring private security companies (like Xe/Blackwater) to manage their protection in hostile areas. I believe they're using all handheld weapons.

        They may also have problems coming into foreign ports, if weapons are not allowed. Just think of the trouble a common merchant ship would have, if it came into a US port with a 5" deck gun, and a couple 50 cal machine guns mounted up on it.

        The other consideration is, it would be fine and dandy if they saw the pirates and stopped them from raiding the ship. It wouldn't be quite so good if the pirates boarded it and took the ship and/or guns. You have to consider the cost of escellation of force.

        The pirates have AK-47's and RPG's. The merchants have their fists.

        The merchants get AR-15's and 50 cal's. The pirates get 50 cal's and RPMs.

        The merchants get deck guns. The pirates steal deck guns.

        Eventually, you'll get to the point where a merchant fleet will be escorted by a carrier group. It may be better to lose the occasional ship to pirates, than to be fighting an all-out war. Hopefully that's a lesson learned from the golden age of piracy and privateering.

  • Re:Old Axiom (Score:3, Informative)

    by vrmlguy ( 120854 ) <> on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @12:21PM (#30061414) Homepage Journal

    I have always believed that if something is networked, it can be subject to unauthorized access. I hope I am wrong.

    I know that you mean computer networking, but there are other types of networks and power grids are one of them. There is no single US power grid. North America has two major and several minor grids covering most of the US and Canada, and there are lots of local grids that aren't interconnected at all. [] I suppose that knocking out the Eastern or Western Interconnection is possible, but the other side would stay up, as would Alaska, Quebec and Texas.

  • Re:Old Axiom (Score:3, Informative)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @12:34PM (#30061646) Journal
    How about being vulnerable to a random bird dropping a baguette on a junction and overheating the system? Not like that would ever happen, but I'd hate to think of something as complex as the electric grid being THAT vulnerable.

    You mean like a wire being touched by a tree branch []?
  • Re:One word: Enron (Score:4, Informative)

    by nmos ( 25822 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2009 @04:22PM (#30065082)

    As the Fort Hood shootings demonstrate, being in a heavily armed environment does not necessarily make anyone safer (I'm assuming American military bases are heavily armed environments.)

    Are you sure about that? From Wikipedia:

    Lt. General Cone stated the on-base firearm policy: "As a matter of practice, we do not carry weapons on Fort Hood. This is our home."[80] Military weapons are only used for training or by base security, and personal weapons must be kept locked away by the provost marshal.

    While these types of incidents are, as you said, improbable they're hardly fantasy and usually occur in "gun free zones".

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