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Ted Koppel: Apocalypse likely

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 17, 2015
The veteran TV newsman, in his new book “Lights Out,” argues that the nation’s energy grid is grievously vulnerable to a catastrophic cyberattack, and that the government is essentially unprepared to respond to it. But critics say that while there are risks, they are not nearly so dire.

ted koppel lights out video
Video frame from A Threat Unlike Any Other America Has Ever Faced | Ted Koppel. Credit:Random House LLC

Ted Koppel, the legendary anchor of ABC TV’s “Nightline” from 1980-2005, doesn’t want to be accused of stoking national panic through a cyber doomsday scenario.

“I didn’t traffic in hysteria then, and I’m not starting now,” he says in a promotional video for his new book, “Lights Out.”

“But the Internet can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, and our electric power grids are a target – that’s a fact,” he says.

Those facts, however, won’t end the ongoing debate within the cybersecurity community about whether, as Koppel’s book asserts, an attack on the U.S. power grid could take a portion of it down for months or even a year or more, affecting tens of millions of people. It will probably amplify it, which could be a good thing.

Indeed, “Lights Out” could be viewed as a prescient warning of a coming cyber apocalypse for which the nation is totally unprepared. Or, it could be viewed as peddling FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt – about a catastrophe that is technically possible but highly unlikely.

Whatever the view of its conclusions, “Lights Out” is a good read – well organized, well told, as light on jargon and acronyms as is possible in an industry swimming in them, and heavier on the kinds of personal anecdotes that make a complex subject accessible to the masses.

And the fact that he is the one telling it is significant. Former defense secretary Leon Panetta, former National Security Agency (NSA) head Keith Alexander and other top government officials have been issuing similar warnings for close to a decade, using loaded terms like “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

But, as Koppel notes in the book and in numerous interviews, those warnings have gotten barely a mention from the mainstream media. Perhaps the star power of a celebrity journalist – even a retired one – will change that.

So the scenario presented is not new, although Koppel adds considerable, and disturbing, details. They include:

- Such an attack on the U.S. power grid is inevitable. Hostile nation states are already on the inside of the grid, and the generators, transformers and other equipment that operate the system are in many cases 30 to 40 years old and were never designed to be networked with one another or connected to the Internet.

- An attack could take down enough of the grid to leave as much as a third of the country without power for months or even a year.

 

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