Monday, March 22, 2010

Imagining Smart Grid Adversaries, or "The Cascade Charade"

As most readers of the DOD Energy Blog can attest from direct experience, sometimes we manufacture enemies as placeholders for potential future enemies. Such was the case recently when a smart and well-intentioned student of Chinese origin, Wang Jianwei, published what he thought would be helpful findings for all students of complex, networked systems.

However, not long after its publication, in certain circles his work became known as a blueprint for Chinese attacks on the US power grid. How'd that happen? In order to understand who scrambled the info, you have to follow the path of the information to detect when and by whom it got altered.

It begins with the paper trail from Wang's article published in Safety Science: "Cascade based attack vulnerability on the US Power Grid" (which you can purchase in full for $31.50). The paper was found by a group called the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and was presented as a threat brief to Congress where things start to simmer with certain congressmen. Ultimately, news of this reaches the New York Times in the form of this article  published on 20 March 2010. My co-blogger on the Smart Grid Security blog, Jack Danahy bought the original paper and read it in its entirety, before writing this post about the whole affair with a focus on the grid.

Of course there are plenty of reasons to keep our eyes open and our guard up. Threats to our electrical insfrastructure can take many shapes, including, as RMI's Amory Lovins points out, squirrels. However, back to the paper that started this tempest. According to Wang and others:
We usually say ‘attack’ so you can see what would happen,” he said. “My emphasis is on how you can protect this. My goal is to find a solution to make the network safer and better protected.” And independent American scientists who read his paper said it was true: Mr. Wang’s work was a conventional technical exercise that in no way could be used to take down a power grid.
Assuming everything originating in China is a threat to the US ignores our current nearly inextricable economic inter-dependency. As it attempts to maintain its very rapid climb out of the third world, China's own energy challenges are staggering. And if climate change is one of your concerns, then the linkage goes even deeper. We have so much to work on; let's not  let our insecurities get in the way of really improving our nation's energy security.

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