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Disgruntled techie attempts Californian power blackout

Counter-terror feds swoop after data centre sabotage

Warning: electricity

A cheesed-off American IT worker was seized by an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force on Wednesday for attacking the Californian electric power grid.

Lonnie Charles Denison, of Sacramento, allegedly meddled with computers at the California Independent System Operator (ISO) agency. He is also accused of making a malicious bomb threat against the organisation. ISO controls the state's power transmission lines and runs its energy trading markets.

According to the feds, Denison became upset last week after a dispute with his employer, Science Applications International. Science Applications provides IT services to ISO.

Denison first attempted a remote attack against the ISO data centre on Sunday, but this was unsuccessful. He then reverted to simpler means, and entered the facility physically using his security card key late on Sunday night. Once inside, he smashed the glass plate covering an emergency power cut-off, shutting down much of the data centre through the early hours of Monday morning. This denied ISO access to the energy trading market, but didn't affect the transmission grid directly. Nor did his emailed bomb threat, delivered later on Monday, though it did lead to the ISO offices being evacuated and control passed to a different facility.

However, the feds reckon that if Denison had carried out his data-centre attack during normal business hours, "electric consumers in the Western United States would have experienced disruptions in their electrical supply". After arresting Denison they slapped him with a felony rap, destruction of an energy facility. The disgruntled techie, if found guilty, could be looking at the wrong end of a maximum five-year stretch, or perhaps a $5,000 fine.

This case could be another sign that America's terrorist threats can come from within as well as from beyond its borders. Denison is the second American IT worker to appear before federal beaks in recent days for sabotaging key US computers, joining Richard F Sylvestre.

Sylvestre's vandalism could have resulted in a nuclear-submarine collision and landed him in the jug for a decade, but in the end he got sent away for just 12 to 18 months. Denison could get off relatively lightly too, if he receives similar treatment.

It'll be interesting to compare the two Americans' cases with that of Gary McKinnon, the UFO-fancying Scottish hacker currently being extradited by the US to face trial for a string of computer intrusions some years ago. He doesn't seem to have threatened any power blackouts or sub wrecks, though he is accused of causing $700k-worth of damage to various US-government systems. America has hinted that he won't be treated as a terrorist, however.

Based on Sylvestre's short sentence and Denison's worst-case five years, McKinnon might not be compelled to enjoy the feds' hospitality for all that long a time – assuming that US justice is consistent. ®

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