Richard Clarke posted an interesting article today on the potential of cyber warfare to be the next major domain of war, much as sea power was in the 19th century, and air power, in the 20th.
The evolution of this new and cheap mode of war has broad implications that will ripple through the American economy in the decades to come. The most obvious and vulnerable area is the country’s electric grid.
The nation’s vulnerabilities to cyber attack are particularly relevant in the emergence of the smart grid, which is an effort to leverage information technology to provide utilities with better situational awareness and more efficient power distribution. The key question is whether the smart grid will open the electric grid to greater vulnerability or help reduce the number of targets by encouraging distributed rather than central generation.
On the one hand, smart grid technologies provide utility firms with greater situational awareness along the so-called last mile — the part of the electric grid that extends from a local substation to the home. This will ultimately make it easier for people to install solar and wind systems on or near their homes, and provide electricity back to the grid.
So-called distributed generation will make it more difficult for cyber terrorists to attack a single, centralized target like a coal-fired power plant, because power generation would be spread out amongst millions of homes (targets).
On the other hand, adding more information technology systems to the grid provides cyber attackers with more ways to install malware into the electric grid.
In the near term, smart grid systems are likely to increase rather than reduce the risk of a grid shut-down. However, in the long-term, smart grid technologies will enable more distributed electric generation systems to penetrate the American power sector and reduce the number of large, centralized targets for cyber warriors.
Let’s hope distributed generation comes sooner rather than later.