NYC Power Outage: Just A Test?

Playing behind the scenes of New York City’s Saturday blackout which left 73,000 locals – not counting tourists – in Midtown Manhattan and the Upper West Side without power are the ongoing power grid “hack attacks” being exchanged between the U.S. and Russia.  Maybe Russia just scored one on us.

A sampling of open source evidence confirms that Russia is fairly embedded in the U.S. grid and taking offensive measures against us. For instance, Russian hacking operatives (known alternately as Energetic Bear or Dragonfly) were caught in 2014 compromising software updates that would in turn provide access to power switches. A U.S. homeland security advisory published roughly a year later and one published more recently in March 2018 found that the same Russian intelligence entities were still hard at work. Recent developments also allude to escalation by both Russia and the U.S.

Just last month, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration is escalating attacks on Russia’s power grid (and other targets) “as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections” and presumably against its ongoing and future efforts as well. It’s also worth bearing in mind that just ten days before the NYC power grid “failure” that the U.S. Government announced its intention to secure our power grids by reverting to “retro” technologies, or ones not connected to the internet and thus better isolated, and thus better insulated, from remote attack.

Not to rush breakneck into the land of conspiracy theory, but a few interesting things—the five hour power outage happened “EXACTLY 42 years after a major blackout in 1977” that was ultimately attributed to a thunderstorm. (What a distractingly convenient headline to reinforce “nothing to see here.”) Though there have been plenty of hushed whispers of a “terror attack,” perhaps a more compelling one is that this power outage was the product of a subtle “gray zone” attack on America’s power grid, and not just for the sake of forcing Jennifer Lopez concert goers to abandon their seats. Rather, it could be a test for weaponizing power outages in order to sow chaos in the form of widespread physical, societal, and political disruption making the Kremlin’s 2016 social media troll farms and fake Facebook political pages look like child’s play.  (After all, there are 60 nuclear power plants currently operating in the U.S. and “acts of God” are not the only threats).

If you parse the effects of that 1977 outage along today’s Left vs. Right political schisms – widespread looting and rioting, largest mass arrests in the city’s history – complete with makeshift detention facilities – and some $1.2 billion in damage in today’s currency, it is a treasure trove of potential for anti-police and anti-Trump propaganda. Of course, the career politicians and mass media reliably falling in lock-step like nice little lemmings furthering foreign agendas.  At this point it is worth zooming out beyond even the power grid fall out.

Such power grid attacks could provide a means to bypass a country’s fielded military altogether and achieve objectives across Warden’s remaining Rings – population, infrastructure, system essentials and leadership – with an emphasis on strategic paralysis and with very little in terms of tangible costs for the tech-savvy perpetrator to field such an attack from afar. The U.S. has its own designs to paralyze say Iran’s power systems as a weapon of war which would certainly be waged outside of the electrical/cyber battlefield so it would be unlikely that no other actor has similar designs against us—real capabilities or ones in the works. It would also be unlikely to limit power systems targeting to the battlefield when the modern international order frowns upon military clashes and smiles upon democracy, even in name only. Ukraine, for one, has already been hit with similar political attacks and Russia-made power outages—all denied by Moscow.

If such electric grid attacks were to be coordinated with other endeavors along the PMESII spectrum in a coordinated and sustained effort, as a society would we even connect the dots against such a multifaceted force multiplier in time or would we be blindsided? Though reality does not fit tidily into strategic theories, what is perhaps most worrisome is that New York City’s power outage 42 years ago was contained while today’s information and technology infrastructure oozes opportunity to open avenues of interdiction against modern democratic societies and their civilians. Turn off the mass transportation. Turn off the creature comforts. Turn off the cell phones. Social media. Mass media. Hospitals. Food. Water. Fuel. Money.  It’s Venezuela with or without the socialism.

As it stands, the outages reported as “due to a transformer fire at the West 49th ConEd substation” are undergoing investigation. Already, though, there are reports that there is “no evidence of a fire.” While the ongoing investigation plays out, the event has more or less turned into political fodder against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was campaigning for president in Iowa instead of waiting at his desk for the lights to go out.  Perhaps the incident warrants more imagination before casting the blame.