Chinese hackers are infiltrating everything nowadays: the New York Times, the State Department, your little sister's World of Warcraft account. But everybody from private security officials on up to Obama is worried about that one ominous threat most of all—the cyber-nightmare scenario: hackers gaining control of the U.S. power grid. If they could finagle control they’d be able to shut it down, leaving critical infrastructure vulnerable. Good thing we can stop them. With solar panels.
The Times just published the findings of a new report from the cyber-security firm Mandiant, which claims to link the activities of a group of hackers, the Comment Crew, to Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army. The Crew has been hacking into American corporations and government institutions from a small outpost in Shanghai for years.
The report reveals that “while Comment Crew has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.”
If the hackers could turn oil and gas pipelines on and off at will, it’d make for a slew of big ugly messes, and potentially environmental catastrophe. But “what most worries American investigators is that the latest set of attacks believed coming from Unit 61398 focus not just on stealing information, but obtaining the ability to manipulate American critical infrastructure: the power grids and other utilities,” the Times reports.
It’s worth remembering that as of right now, many security analysts believe that it’d be next to impossible for a team of hackers to gain enough control over a utility or a particular power plant to shut it down. And those advocating a stricter government cyber-security apparatus have been accused of using the threat of grid-killing hackers to stoke fears to justify their policies. Yet the sophistication of these attacks is indeed growing, that's indisputable.
There’s one thing you can do for sure to ward off the threat of Chinese hackers turning your lights off: buy solar panels. Or better yet, support policies that bring solar to your community at large.
I'll explain. There’s a reason that the prospect of hackers taking over our grid is so alarming, and that’s because our grid is currently fed almost exclusively by giant, centralized power plants. If hackers were to take down a single generating station, say, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, it’s lights out for half of New York. If they hijack the Scherer coal plant in Georgia, that’s almost 4 gigawatts of power that goes offline, millions and millions of homes left dark—and tons of critical infrastructure, of course.
That’s why relying on centralized power is so risky—a coordinated attack, or, more likely, a storm or other natural disaster, could shut off the lights in an entire region in one fell swoop. We fear the terrorists, of course, but an errant tree branch falling on a power line in Connecticut could do just as much damage.
So we need to hacker-and-hurricane-proof our grid. If we're worried about terrorists taking out our grid, the solution is to begin a transition, as nations like Germany have, to a distributed model of power generation. Thanks to government incentives, communities across Deutschland have been buying up their own solar arrays, and relying on localized power instead of big central plants. If the power gets cut in a neighboring city, the lights stay on. Communities also enjoy the benefit of democratized energy; they manage how their own power flows, not a utility. If we all had our own local power supplies, with diversified software to manage it, it’d be nigh impossible for hackers or natural disasters to shut down the lot of them.
Of course, if you have your own home-mounted array, you’ve already hacker-proofed your home from those grid-assaulting agents overseas. The next step is to upgrade the whole grid, by transforming it from a lumbering, massive target with a smokestack for a bulls-eye, into a nimbler, smarter collection of solar panels and wind turbines that more gracefully match supply to demand. And a new motto for the cleantech industry is born: Help keep the hackers out. Go solar.