Feeling vulnerable

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Every day, more aspects of our lives become intertwined with the Internet, and things we take for granted grow more dependent on its ground and satellite infrastructure.

Consider our telephone, email and text conversations, our air traffic control, our national defense (the military now guides many of our troops and even airplanes remotely), and our businesses. Many elements of these are now based in “the cloud” — and the cloud is, like its name, so evanescent, so vulnerable.

The transmission of our most sensitive data — personal financial information and even private calls among heads of state — are an open book for both those who seek to protect us and those who might seek to rob us.

A recent survey found that more than 60 percent of Americans have had personal data stolen at some point, many through theft of digital records.

Corporate and government data are subject to hacking attempts 24/7, including efforts originating in other countries that, occasionally, disable critical systems.

And nations with long-range missile technology are testing their ability to shoot down orbiting satellites, which are essential not only for military purposes but also global communication.

But even more disturbing to me is the recently revealed vulnerability of our nation’s electricity grid.

What aspects of present-day life would be the same without power? Think of the few days we’ve had to go without power in recent years — spoiled food, unbearably cold (or hot) homes and offices, an inability to pump gas, make cell phone calls, or charge electric gadgets, elevators and subways out of service, hospitals and nursing homes functioning in emergency mode using generators.

Now ramp that up to a situation where there is no electricity available anywhere in America for months.

Am I reading too much science fiction? Actually, I’m referring to a recent news report in the Wall Street Journal.

One of its reporters noted that our national electricity grid is dependent on a relatively small number of substations (and their transformers) that function as critical links in power transmission.

Last April, a substation serving California’s Silicon Valley was targeted by unknown snipers, armed with assault weapons, who incapacitated 17 transformers in less than half an hour.

Not only are these transformers expensive, they are made to order, and it takes weeks to build and install one. (They weigh 500,000 pounds each.) They are also easily visible and relatively unprotected, typically behind chain link fences.

While power was rerouted to Silicon Valley from elsewhere on the grid, it took nearly a month before the targeted station was operational again.

We still don’t know who did this or why, but it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that last April’s attack might have been a dry run for a coordinated attack on our county’s electric grid as a whole.

The Journal report quoted Rich Lordan, senior technical executive for the Electric Power Research Institute, as saying it “appears to be preparation for an act of war.”

The implication is that a small number of trained commandos could, in a matter of minutes, take our country back to the 1800s — where we’d stay for months.

Why, you might ask, are we in this vulnerable position for such a critical part of our infrastructure? Two reasons. First, it would be costly for public utilities to protect their equipment from this potential but, until recently, far-fetched scenario, and they have no economic incentive to do so individually.

Second, no federal agency currently has the authority to require nonprofit or investor-owned utilities (other than nuclear power plants) to pay for such added security.

It seems to me this is a situation where the potential harm is enormous and the potential solution is quite obvious and, relatively speaking, affordable. In fact, it’s one of those situations where we can’t afford not to act.

 I urge you to call your senators and representative (as well as the heads of your local electric utility and public service commission) and urge them to take immediate steps to protect the most vulnerable links in our electric grid — even if this means a surcharge on our electric bills.

There are too many groups out there who wish America harm, and it’s far too easy to imagine them succeeding beyond their wildest dreams and our wildest fears.