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Will infrastructure attacks become more frequent?

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Dec 27, 2022

Substation attacks on Christmas day cut power to over 14,000 customers in the Pacific Northwest. Details are still emerging about the acts of vandalism, but we know the substations in question belong to Puget Sound Energy and Tacoma Power, the latter of which had been warned early this month by federal law enforcement of a potential grid threat. Luckily, service was restored quickly and authorities maintain that there is no known threat to public safety. 

Those who follow the industry will probably realize that this attack is just the latest in a similar string of incidents. Six substations in the Northwest were damaged by vandalism in November, and earlier this month a firearm attack in North Carolina damaged grid infrastructure, cutting power to around 45,000 Duke Energy customers. 

In January of this year, the Department of Homeland Security warned of credible and specific plans to attack the grid by domestic terrorists, but didn’t get much into specifics. 

Attacks on the country’s power grid have been frequent for a long time, but what makes these recent efforts noteworthy is their relative success. Historically, the vast majority of non-cyber grid infrastructure attacks have failed to cut power to many people. 

With so little information available at the moment, it’s hard to speculate who’s carried out these attacks and why. It’s not even clear if the three aforementioned cases are related. 

What I can’t help myself speculating, however, is whether these attacks, along with Russia’s well publicized war against Ukraine’s power system, will inspire more frequent efforts in the near future. I hope I’m wrong, but this prognosis makes a lot of sense. The grid is a vulnerable target, with big transmission lines and the likes often being located in rural, out of the way places where they’re hard to guard. A small-scale rudimentary attack can cause big problems, as we’ve just seen. It’s low hanging fruit for nefarious actors. 

Grid infrastructure has always been vulnerable, but now bad people know about it. I fear that we might be entering a phase of copycat grid vandalism. The copycat phenomenon in crime refers to the idea that certain types of crimes or behaviors can inspire or influence others to imitate them. This can occur through media coverage of a crime, as well as through personal connections or relationships with the perpetrator.

One example of the copycat effect can be seen in the proliferation of school shootings in the United States. After a high-profile shooting occurs, it is not uncommon for other individuals to become inspired by the attention and notoriety gained by the perpetrator, and to plan and carry out similar attacks. The copycat phenomenon can also be seen in the spread of other types of crimes, such as serial killings or terrorist attacks.

From the small amount of data we have, it seems that a media blackout on specific types of crimes really do work to end the copycat cycle. Remember how common streaking was at sports events? Then, in the 2000’s I think, they just started turning camera’s away from the nudists, and sure enough the incidents began to decline sharply. 

Unfortunately, albeit for good reasons, our media outlets cannot be expected to do the same thing with critical infrastructure attacks. These are news stories that must be covered. 

If this sort of terrorism does take hold, how can it be stamped out? Or, if it can’t be controlled, how do we protect the power lines and the likes from it? It would seem a daunting take considering that we can’t even protect our grid infrastructure from squirrels and birds. I’m all ears though.


Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Dec 31, 2022

It brings up an interesting question. So much of the "security" discourse has focused on cybersecurity. The U.S. power system is so vast and runs through rural stretches that almost no one sees or monitors closely. No matter how rural, the infrastructure is connected to a larger system, so one remote strike has systemwide consequences. This is definitely something watch. 

Henry Craver's picture
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