“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air,” says Lady Galadriel in the opening narration of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Like “The Matrix,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Terminator” and so many other fascinating stories, Ted Koppel’s “Lights Out” pulls back a curtain on our reality to portray a world fundamentally different than we believe it to be. However, the frightening difference is that those movies are fiction, Koppel’s book is not. It strips away misperceptions and myths (such as an electrical outage would only last a short time and the government is prepared to deal with an attack on the electric grid) to reveal a disturbing reality that has dire consequences for all of us. Thanks to the intersection of cyber and our dependence on a fragile Bulk Power System (BPS), the world has indeed changed.
Koppel’s Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath is an excellent examination of the Bulk Power System – which most people refer to as the “electric grid,” and its vulnerability to cyberattack. The book also examines threats such as a kinetic attack, e.g., the April 2013 attack on the Metcalfe Substation in San Jose, CA and the threat of electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). However, Koppel quickly makes a convincing case that it is the cyber threat that poses the most immediate and greatest risk to the BPS.
The book then explores the disturbing consequences of a cyber attack on the BPS. Most people in North America have experienced brief power outages. A few of those outages have lasted days or even weeks in isolated areas, but none have lasted months or years. With a few exceptions, none have darkened entire regions. But that’s exactly what Koppel proves to be a very real possibility: extended power outages across large geographic areas. If such outages should occur, Koppel argues, the consequences would be almost unimaginable. At some point, emergency fuel supplies for hospital generators would be exhausted, grocery stores would empty out almost immediately, followed by food and water stored at home. Those dependent upon assistance to live would find themselves without caregivers and without life-sustaining medicines, emergency services would not be able to respond, there would be no water, sewage systems would fail, and every aspect of the modern world would have changed.
Koppel’s book comes on the heels of a large number of apocalyptic stories whose premise is that something, usually a natural EMP event, i.e., a solar event or an attack which generates a man-made EMP, has taken down the electric grid and North Americans find themselves living in a new dark age. Perhaps foremost among these fictional works is William R. Forstchen’s One Second After. However, Koppel’s book is significant in that he interviewed dozens of experts, including the former director of the National Security Agency, the current Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the current Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. A few of those interviews suggest that the situation is not quite as grave as Koppel argues. However, the majority seem to support his thesis: North America faces what has the potential to be an existential threat.
The book is a call to arms. In contrast to more technical reads in this field, it is written in the easy-to-read fashion of good journalism. Perhaps, because it is easy to read and it comes from a journalist with impeccable credentials, it will achieve sufficient popularity to trigger a demand for action. This book should be a “must read” for anyone in the homeland security, emergency management, defence, infrastructure protection and related fields.