Feeds

Power grid scare stories a 'bunch of hooey'

Bloody difficult for your average villain to trigger blackout, say boffins

High performance access to file storage

There have been a lot of scare stories in the media about electrical power grids in recent times, suggesting that it would be a simple matter to bring down a national transmission system by way of a minor cyber attack or physical sabotage - thereby bringing that nation's infrastructure to a grinding halt.

There's just one problem with that idea: it's "a bunch of hooey," according to power-engineering boffin Seth Blumsack.

Blumsack and his colleagues were moved to look into the matter of deliberate power-grid crashing after recent papers and studies in hefty journals - including some briefed to US politicians - painted a grim picture earlier this year. The perception was that making a targeted strike on a relatively minor electrical installation such as a neighbourhood substation (by bomb, arson or electronic/network sabotage) could easily bring down the whole grid to which it was attached.

According to Blumsack and his fellow 'leccy boffins Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez and Ed Hines, the alarmist analyses are based on a particular type of mathematical modelling of power grids - so-called "topological" models.

"Some modellers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they've ignored the physics of how things actually work," Hines says.

"This can lead you grossly astray."

Blumsack, Hines and Cotilla-Sanchez decided to contrast the performance of a topological model with one based on actual physics - specifically on Ohm's and Kirchoff's Laws governing the flow of electricity in the real world. They tried out both kinds of model on an accurate representation of the North American Eastern Interconnect, the largest and one of the most trouble-prone portions of the US grid, using real-world data from a test case generated in 2005.

The three engineers say that the physics-driven model was much closer to reality, and that this verifies what physics models show. The results showed that in fact it is major grid components through which a lot of power flows - big generating stations and massive transformers - which are the main points of vulnerability, not the minor installations scattered across the country.

It isn't so much that a minor event on a minor line or installation can't crash the network: such things do happen. But in general there have to be huge numbers of such minor events before one of them happens to hit the miracle weak point and bring everything down. It would be an impossible task for terrorists or other malefactors to know in advance just where and when a minor pinprick could cause massive effects.

"Our system is quite robust to small things failing," says Hines.

Hitting a bigger installation or link, which would generally be better secured and more resilient, would be much more likely to work. Even then a well-resourced terror or sabotage unit with the ability to knock out bigger grid components would struggle to take down the whole thing as it is still very difficult to know exactly where and when to strike.

"It takes an incredible amount of information," says Hines, "to really figure out how to make the grid fail."

Hines and his colleagues' paper, Do topological models provide good information about electricity infrastructure vulnerability?, is published here by the journal Chaos. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Parent gabfest Mumsnet hit by SSL bug: My heart bleeds, grins hacker
Natter-board tells middle-class Britain to purée its passwords
Obama allows NSA to exploit 0-days: report
If the spooks say they need it, they get it
Web data BLEEDOUT: Users to feel the pain as Heartbleed bug revealed
Vendors and ISPs have work to do updating firmware - if it's possible to fix this
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Call of Duty 'fragged using OpenSSL's Heartbleed exploit'
So it begins ... or maybe not, says one analyst
German space centre endures cyber attack
Chinese code retrieved but NSA hack not ruled out
NSA denies it knew about and USED Heartbleed encryption flaw for TWO YEARS
Agency forgets it exists to protect communications, not just spy on them
Heartbleed exploit, inoculation, both released
File under 'this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me'
prev story

Whitepapers

Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
HP ArcSight ESM solution helps Finansbank
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.