Lights Out

What would you do if the lights went out? What if they went out not only for an hour or a day but for a week or a month? That’s the question behind Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, a book I decided to read after seeing it sit for several weeks on the New York Times list of bestsellers. Would you be prepared? Or perhaps even more importantly, is your nation prepared?

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Now it is always easy to dismiss books like this as mere pessimistic speculation. We all remember the fuss and fury surrounding Y2K. We remember watching the news to see if Australia and other nations closer to the International Date Line were going to suddenly go dark. But, of course, very little happened. I suppose we will never know whether the fuss and fury motivated people to fix the problems, or whether the problems were massively overblown to begin with. But either way, it was just another in a long line of events that seemed terrifying but turned out to be nothing.

Ted Koppel is concerned about America’s power grid. He is concerned that it is vulnerable to a couple of kinds of attack, both outright acts of sabotage that would destroy a few key points in the system and some kind of cyberterrorism that would disrupt the system through the Internet. “We literally have no count of how many groups or even individuals are capable of launching truly damaging attacks on our electric power grids—some, perhaps even most of them, uninhibited by the threat of retaliation.” Of these two, it is the cyberterrorism that concerns him most. “Prudence suggests that we at least consider the possibility of a cyberattack against the grid, the consequences of which would be so devastating that no administration could consider it anything less than an act of war.”

So what would you do if the lights went out? Most of us, I dare say, are inadequately prepared. Most of us would have food and water to last just a few days. Those of us in cold weather climates don’t have the capacity to warm ourselves for any longer than that. The fact is, we are completely dependent upon the steady flow of resources—electricity chief among them. “This book is about dealing with the consequences of losing power in more than one sense of the word. Without ready access to electricity, we are thrust back into another age—an age in which many of us would lack both the experience and the resources to survive. Precisely how that happens is, ultimately, less important than how prepared we are for the consequences.”

Is Koppel right to be concerned? Based on the case he makes, I think he is. He shows that the power grid is vulnerable and that there are a surprising number of exploitable weak links, both physical and virtual. He proves that there are many nations and even individuals who are probing vulnerabilities like these. Yet he also takes the pessimistic view of the situation which, after all, leads to far more book sales. Is it possible that hackers or terrorists could take down the grid? It seems that it is. Is it likely and would the consequences be as long-lasting and devastating as he suggests? I am not at all convinced, because he does not prove this nearly as well. Still, the hope is that a book like this causes the right people to ask the right questions and to begin to address the concerns.

As for you and me, he tacitly suggests a light, moderate kind of prepping—to have enough food, water, and supplies on-hand to survive for a little while. That is always sound advice, I suppose. But you are probably like me in that, while your intentions are good, you continue to trust the system and hope that these fears, like so many before them, are overblown. To this point, that approach has worked out well enough.

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