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Summary:

Turns out cyber security might not be the biggest threat to the power grid after all.

Hunter with gun
photo: Flickr / Akash_Kurdekar

One of the most significant acts of domestic terrorism involving the power grid took place last Spring in Northern California and you probably didn’t even know about it. I surely didn’t.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, last April, in the middle of the night, snipers opened fire for almost 20 minutes on a substation next to a freeway south of San Jose, California, and knocked out seventeen transformers that direct power around Silicon Valley. They also cut the nearby telephone cables. It took a month to fix all the damage — the attackers are still unknown.

Image (1) powergrid151.jpg for post 76421

The former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff — who now works for the law firm Stoel Rives — has been trying to bring attention to the incident because he thinks it could have been a dress rehearsal for a larger coordinated attack on the U.S. power grid. Shortly after the event occurred, Wellinghoff — who was still FERC Chairman at the time — took a group from the U.S. Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia (which trains Navy SEALs) to investigate the scene and they determined it was a professional job.

Wellinghoff thinks that a larger coordinated attack could be so detrimental that it could lead to widespread blackouts across the U.S. Not everyone agrees with him, though, and others quoted in the Wall Street Journal article think the grid is more resilient.

Still, much of the discussion around grid security in recent years has been focused on cyber attacks. The idea is that as more and more digital technology, wireless networks, and software are added to the grid, the more the grid is vulnerable to the type of hacking that plagues the Internet. But perhaps the real grid vulnerabilities still lie in the actual physical systems.

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  1. Similar attacks in Arkansas, albeit different methods & a “lone ranger” vs. multiple attackers: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/08/us/arkansas-grid-attacks/.

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  2. A false flag operation is inevitable…

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    1. Quinten Chalmers Thursday, February 6, 2014

      YOU’RE A FALSE FLAG

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  3. This is so stupid its sad. Professional job? Really? Because of the lack of evidence? Well.. they could have been shooting from literally hundreds of yards away. But just because you can hit something 500 yards away doesnt mean you are a professional. San Jose is in one of the most wired areas of the world. There are traffic cameras everywhere.

    Actually… there are so any cameras that the fact that they have no leads tells me that it was a professional hit. Professional in the sense that it was done by either A. the power company itself to cause a loss (reduces tax liability), or B. members of a law enforcement agency to justify spending, contracts, terrorism fear, etc. There are so many cameras that it is relatively impossible to get near the city without being captured on a traffic camera. That this is being publicized the way it is makes me think it is option B.

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    1. Please get your facts straight. I live in San Jose and there are not “so many cameras … impossible to get near the city”. There are a few operated by Santa Clara County Roads Dept. They monitor traffic flow and are unable to capture details at night. And you can tour the facility. None are near the PG&E Metcalf substation. It’s a relatively remote area – use Google maps to see it at Metcalf Rd & 101.

      Sending a contingent of Navy investigators seems dumb too. Probably took at least a couple of days to arrive. Navy Seals are skilled in creating crime scenes – not investigating them. The FBI would be much more sensible and have offices in San Jose and San Francisco.

      San Jose PD and County Sheriff investigators are skilled in crime scene investigations and could be on the scene in minutes with thermal imaging helicopters.

      Lastly, targeting the Metcalf substation is dumb. Terrorists would know to cripple the power plant at Davenport that supplies Metcalf. It would seem a much better target.. Davenport’s an attractive whale watching spot for those of us not inclined to disable the power grid.

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  4. A few years ago, and just a stone’s throw down the road from the Metcalf station, someone broke into an AT&T wiring junction and went to town. They severed bundles of fiber with a chainsaw if I recall correctly. AT&T never got an arrest on that one but they did get smarter about how physically secure they make those access areas now. Story at the Merc here: (http://www.mercurynews.com/localnewsheadlines/ci_12106300). The reward hit $250k but that never led to any further leads.

    I have no doubt that if someone really wanted to wreck havoc on infrastructure in this country, it would be devilishly easy to do so. Just as we were blithely naive that we’d ever get a real direct attack on American soil, we’re just as blind to the real vulnerabilities around the core systems that we depend on as a first world country. It’s really just a matter of when.

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  5. The phrase “domestic terrorism” in the lede implies that the perpetrators were U.S. citizens. But since “the attackers are still unknown” you have no way to know that.

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  6. Casual vandalism of the power grid has been around as long as high tension lines. For a goofup with a decent rifle, the ceramic insulators have always been a fun target.

    I knew gangbangers who got off on assaults like this over 50 years ago. When I was still mountainbiking here in NM it wasn’t unusual while cycling HT line access roads to come upon shattered insulators on the ground from recent or not-so-recent vandalism.

    Generalized hostility from some lumpen with a gun trumps conspiracy theory in the US 99% of the time.

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