"A Digital Pearl Harbor Is Only a Matter of Time."
Keep waiting. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered a stark warning last summer: "We could face a cyberattack that could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor." Such alarmist predictions have been ricocheting inside the Beltway for the past two decades, and some scaremongers have even upped the ante by raising the alarm about a cyber 9/11. In his 2010 book, Cyber War, former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke invokes the specter of nationwide power blackouts, planes falling out of the sky, trains derailing, refineries burning, pipelines exploding, poisonous gas clouds wafting, and satellites spinning out of orbit -- events that would make the 2001 attacks pale in comparison.
But the empirical record is less hair-raising, even by the standards of the most drastic example available. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command (established in 2010 and now boasting a budget of more than $3 billion), shared his worst fears in an April 2011 speech at the University of Rhode Island: "What I'm concerned about are destructive attacks," Alexander said, "those that are coming." He then invoked a remarkable accident at Russia's Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant to highlight the kind of damage a cyberattack might be able to cause. Shortly after midnight on Aug. 17, 2009, a 900-ton turbine was ripped out of its seat by a so-called "water hammer," a sudden surge in water pressure that then caused a transformer explosion. The turbine's unusually high vibrations had worn down the bolts that kept its cover in place, and an offline sensor failed to detect the malfunction. Seventy-five people died in the accident, energy prices in Russia rose, and rebuilding the plant is slated to cost $1.3 billion.
Tough luck for the Russians, but here's what the head of Cyber Command didn't say: The ill-fated turbine had been malfunctioning for some time, and the plant's management was notoriously poor. On top of that, the key event that ultimately triggered the catastrophe seems to have been a fire at Bratsk power station, about 500 miles away. Because the energy supply from Bratsk dropped, authorities remotely increased the burden on the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant. The sudden spike overwhelmed the turbine, which was two months shy of reaching the end of its 30-year life cycle, sparking the catastrophe.
If anything, the Sayano-Shushenskaya incident highlights how difficult a devastating attack would be to mount. The plant's washout was an accident at the end of a complicated and unique chain of events. Anticipating such vulnerabilities in advance is extraordinarily difficult even for insiders; creating comparable coincidences from cyberspace would be a daunting challenge at best for outsiders. If this is the most drastic incident Cyber Command can conjure up, perhaps it's time for everyone to take a deep breath.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images