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Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation…
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Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath

by Ted Koppel

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Generally I don't read this sort of apocalyptic tech-focused material. But I generally try to stay aware of the frailties of our society, and therefore, decided to pick up a copy.

Koppel certainly has phenomenal sources, which he could access due to his big name in journalism. I found myself wondering if the book might have actually been improved though by doing more original research, and talking with fewer industry executives and top political leaders, and instead had conversations at the bottom of the chain of command, that might have more first-hand experience with the technologies in question.

The core premise of the book is that the US power grid is extremely susceptible to attack, including cyber attack, physical attack, and EMT attack from a high-altitude atomic bomb.

We have tens of thousands of massive transformers across the country, and some experts believe that knocking out just twelve of them could shut down power across the entire country. These transformers are custom made, take years to manufacture, and are extremely difficult to transport, so replacement is anything but easy.

The Department of Defense estimates that if the grid was out for a year, 90% of Americans would die. In other words, it's a significant threat. Everything we do today relies on power, from things as simple as accessing fresh water, disposing of our waste, and keeping our buildings at habitable temperatures.

Koppel goes on to spend most of the book looking at how prepared people are to deal with such an outage. Although he goes and talks with "preppers" and Mormons, he fails to follow his train of thought to its logical conclusion. The local food and local economy movements, along with Transition Towns, have been building more resilient communities since the sixties, and not once does Koppel reference such efforts.

The only truly resilient solutions require cultural change on a massive level, and all Koppel cites is the possibility of installing nuclear generators at military bases because they don't need to adhere to safety protocols.

What about all the people building off-grid or battery-back-up solar systems? What about all the small-scale sustainable farms growing food with human and animal power instead of with fossil fuels? What about the primitive skills community that can survive without any modern amenities?

Although Koppel makes a very good point—the grid is a disaster [and not just because of its fragility]—the book could do more to detail the problem, and ultimately fails to come anywhere close to outlining possible solutions. ( )
  willszal | Mar 13, 2017 |
Summary: Explores the vulnerabilities of our power grid to attack, the state of our preparedness for such an attack, and what it would take as individuals to survive such an attack.

Imagine what you would do if the lights went out. Your electric appliances would not work. You could not charge laptops and smartphones. Suppose it was widespread enough to take out the pumps and equipment that pump drinking water and handle sewage. The pumps at gas stations won't work so you are immobilized. If it is winter, you may have no heat. Suppose this lasts not for a few hours or even a few days. Suppose it lasts for weeks or months. Suppose the lights are out for half or all of the country. What would happen to public order? Would you survive?

Sounds like something out of apocalyptic fiction, right? Ted Koppel, celebrated host of Nightline for many years and veteran journalist went through this mental exercise and that sought reassurances that it couldn't happen and discovered instead our disturbing vulnerability to just such an event. Through interviews with experts in the power industry, military, cyber-security, Homeland Security, and others, he discovered that such an event is not only possible, but that indeed there is a high probability that such an attack upon our power grid could be mounted.

The first part of the book explores the vulnerability of our power grid, particularly to cyber-attack. The danger is how inter-connected our grid is. You may remember how a wire hitting a tree limb near Akron took out much of the northeastern United States. Our own power company barely got us off that grid in time. Attacks on critical parts of the grid can cascade. It could be terrorists with AK-47s attacking key transformers. It could be a high altitude nuclear detonation emitting an electro-magnetic pulse. But more likely it could be a cyber attack. One of the problems is that our power grid interconnects thousands of electric companies who buy power from each other. Some, usually the bigger ones, have better cyber-security than others. None are hack proof. Probably all have at least been probed, and in some cases, already compromised. And most share control software from an era before cyber-warfare was a significant threat. And if hardware like transformers are destroyed, replacements are not always immediately available.

OK, so it is possible or even probable, but aren't we prepared for that? Sure, agencies like FEMA do disaster planning, but Koppel found that the people he interviewed offered little reassurance that there are good plans for responding to this kind of disaster. Yet eventually, responses would be mounted, but many major cities would have to survive by themselves for the first weeks or months of a prolonged outage.

So that brings us to the third part of Koppel's book, what would it take to survive such an event? This was probably the most sobering part of the book because it raised the question of how far one is prepared to go to survive. Yes, you can plan to be off the grid, have food and water supplies, but to what extent are you willing to defend yourself from those who are not so well prepared but may be willing to kill to get what you have. Consider the amount of guns in American society. Koppel interviews "preppers," those who already live in wilderness areas relatively off the grid, and interestingly, Mormons, who have prepared in each of their "wards" to support one another in disaster. Most fascinating in discussions with this group, which has renounced violence and trusts to law enforcement, is that their guidelines for survival in disaster include the recommendation that one "might consider obtaining a gun" without specifying how it would be used--an approach Koppel describes as "constructive ambiguity."

At the end of the day, Koppel thinks at very least that we need to think about how we would survive at least for two weeks and to have some kind of plan in place with provisions for non-perishable food, water (most critical), and other basic necessities, allowing time for coordinated disaster responses to begin. Drawing on the Mormons, he also points to the issue of social capital--do we belong to real networks of people who will help each other when the chips are down--religious organizations, community organizations, or even close knit neighborhoods?

What struck me in reading is that there are two kinds of preparedness that Koppel is addressing. One is defensive preparedness, ranging from cyber-security to disaster planning to stockpiling critical supplies. As important as that is, the more important preparation may be that of the social fabric of our country, which seems in tatters. Koppel speaks of wartime England and the mutual support people gave each other. It is sobering to ask whether that national character exists in our own highly divisive, factionalized nation and with our increasing isolation in an internet-mediated virtual reality. How long would order and mutual support last? Long enough?

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  BobonBooks | Feb 20, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is unreadable—but not for the usual reasons. It took me much longer than a book this size would normally take because I could not read for very long before jumping up to make a list of emergency supplies, find a place for storing them or just pace. That isn’t Koppel’s point; he is talking about months-long outages that would go way beyond the preparations for a few days that you might think to make for natural disasters like storms or earthquakes. But while you can’t do much about that level of emergency (beyond asking about it at local, state and national levels) you certainly can think about it and be sure you have at least a minimum stock of supplies. You can tell that Koppel is a newsperson, not an author, but he makes pretty good arguments that disruption on that level is very possible, that the agencies you might think have a handle on it might not, and that governments and agencies should be doing this planning. Reading the book will make you very uncomfortable—let’s hope that more people read it. ( )
  ehousewright | Jan 4, 2017 |
"This book is about dealing with the consequences of losing power in more than one sense of the word."

Boy is it! The first 3 pages lay it down, and the first chapter slams it home! A cyber attack on our country, shutting down one, or all three, of the power grids that generate and distribute our electricity, upon which we are so dependent on in this age of computers, smartphones, and the internet! Scary stuff, but important! I think we all should read this!

"To be dependent is to be vulnerable." ( )
  Stahl-Ricco | Dec 24, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What would happen if our electric grid went down via cyberattack? Is that possible? Keppel presents compelling evidence that such a thing is indeed possible, and likely probable. Now think about how much we depend upon electricity. If you've ever experienced a power outage (and who hasn't?) you have an idea about how difficult it might be if it took an extended period of time to restore power. Because of course it's not just the electricity you lose. You lose running water and sewage disposal, you run out of food and medicine. You can't pump gas or use your credit cards. No phone or internet. And what if it continued for months instead of days? Certainly the power companies could repair the damage quickly, right? Uh, not so much. Well, then... the government has a plan, right? Not really.

Koppel has the chops to get interviews from lots of experts. It's scary. But this isn't a doom and gloom book--there are steps we can take to safeguard ourselves, things we might do to survive the worst. It's time to stop ignoring this problem. Sure, you can become a prepper, but that doesn't help society as a whole. Let's speak up instead and work as a community to galvanize our leaders from the local to the national level. Big problems can be intimidating, but failing to plan for major disaster simply doesn't help. ( )
  Carrie.Kilgore | Dec 24, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 055341996X, Hardcover)

In this tour de force of investigative reporting, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.
 
Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. 

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.” 

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid.  The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 01 Aug 2015 21:42:26 -0400)

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