Planning for a Cyber Pearl Harbor

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post because I have been preparing myself for a Cyber Pearl Harbor.  Well, not exactly, but I have put preparing for a possible cyber attack on my near term To Do list. What is a cyber Pearl Harbor you ask?  Cyber Pearl Harbor refers to a potential cyberattack that some people believe threatens U.S. based IT infrastructure and related services.  It was coined by then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in 2012 to relate the intensity and potential devastation of a major cyberattack with the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is a lot of debate whether this is more hype than threat.  My concern arose from the article I read concerning Ted Koppel’s book exposing the cyberattack threat on the U.S. Power Grid. In his book, titled “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” Koppel investigates the threat and devastating consequences of a major cyberattack on America’s power grid.

Now I live in Michigan, away from the oceans, tornado alley, and the forest fires and earthquake threats of the west coast.  My risk assessment of being hit by a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or forest fire is determined to be minimal.  My biggest fear of a disaster is being stranded in my house for a few days with my two young kids due to the cold snowy Michigan winters.  But now, I have to add another potential disaster to the list which I might possibly have to plan for, and that is a Cyberattack that cripples the electrical grid or causes a more disastrous effect on our everyday living.

I lived in Michigan and experienced the great Northeast Blackout of 2003.  This was a widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and the Canadian province in Ontario in August of 2003.  The Northeast blackout of 2003 started at a single power center.  A computer bug disabled an important alarm. The operators couldn’t react in time to a downed power line and it blacked out 55 million people for several days. I remember that week clearly.  My mom and sister were visiting from out of town.  It took over an hour to drive from my volleyball game to home because of all the traffic lights that were out.  When I got home, luckily I had a battery powered radio to get updated information.  Once finding out the extent of the outage, I had to go to the grocery store the next day to get some food for my mom and sister and stood in line for 2 hours just to get enough food to survive a day or wo.  Luckily I had an outdoor barbecue grill to cook some burgers up for dinner the 2nd night of the outage.  Without gas in the car because all the gas stations were closed, driving to a state where there was power wasn’t an option.

Luckily the power came back on sooner than later, and I was able to handle this disaster.  But living through that, and now having two young kids, disaster preparation takes on a whole new concern, especially reading through articles on the book that Ted Koppel wrote.  Some have warned that a cyber attack essentially could be a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” whereby a hacker or rogue nation takes down the power grid for weeks, not days such as the case for the Northeast Blackout. The threat increases each year as the grid becomes more and more connected to the Internet.  Koppel determined that a cyber attack on the American power grid could affect tens of millions of people across the country.  The attack would cut off electricity, food, and bring other devastating consequences Koppel says “would be infinitely longer in duration and more widespread than any of those natural disasters.” Koppel states that there are plans for hurricanes, there are plans for snowstorms, there are plans for earthquakes but there is no plan for a cyber attack.

The articles on Koppel’s made me put down preparing for a disaster, especially a cyberattack, on my To Do list and led me to do some research on what people need to do to prepare for a cyber attack on the electrical grid.  To prepare for a cyber attack on critical infrastructure:

  • Plan to have a backup plan for your family. The recommended plan is for at least 30 days of limited to nonexistent services.
  • Keep a supply of water and canned food on hand, along with a first aid kit.
  • Go to for help in planning your disaster kit.
  • Since a cyber attack would mostly take out the means to use debit and credit cards, plan to have some cash on hand in your emergency kit.
  • Keep important documents within easy reach. You may not be able to get into documents stored on your computer.  Thus keep physical copies in a small safe near your disaster kit.
  • Being separated from your family is worrying, particularly in emergencies. So, your family needs to determine a gathering point. Remember, Facebook, Twitter or texting may not be available to help coordinate where to locate each other.
  • In a disaster, remember it’s better to text than to voice call. Texts use less information so they don’t overwhelm local cellular towers. Plus, texts can wait to send, so they’ll still get through without your constant attention.
  • In localized disasters, it is often easier to contact people outside the area. So, designate an out-of-town relative as a contact person. Also, note that cellular towers aren’t as robust as traditional landlines. So, don’t rely on cell phones to contact out of town relatives.
  • Have one or more sets of two-way radios. They’ll work in any situation. Be sure to choose a channel to use in advance. Choose a second one in case the first is in use. And be sure to stock up on batteries.
  • Have an AM/FM radio with required batteries in your emergency kit. Radio Stations have generators and can still keep broadcasting important information when other communication systems fail.  Even better, choose a radio that can be powered by hand crank or solar power. Some can even charge other gadgets, like cellphones. Make sure the radio is capable of receiving NOAA weather alerts as well.
  • If you have young children, be sure to write instructions down for them. This can help if they’re at school when disaster strikes.
  • For kids old enough to have a cellphone, make a note with the instructions and store it on their phone as a file or picture. Don’t count on them remembering where to meet or what to do.

Remember a cyber attack on the nations power grid can have a possible impact every single person in the country.  Whether or not a cyber attack ever happens, these are still good planning ideas.  You never know when another kind of disaster might strike. A little preparation now might save your life – or a loved one’s life – later.

Jeff (Homecybersifu)

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