As of this writing, the blackout in the Northeast seems to have been an accident, not terrorism.
If it wasn’t terrorism, then terrorists missed a good opportunity. The blackout was exactly the kind of technology-related disaster that people have been predicting and expecting.
Why can’t it happen again, deliberately?
An advantage of a civilization based on complex systems and networks is that they work really well, most of the time. The electrical grid works so well that whenever it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s national news. Air transport, nuclear power generators, the Internet, the telephone system and the highways all work splendidly — usually. We’ve become dependent.
The unnoticed, heavy dependence on technological systems is fairly new. In 1850, terrorism wasn’t really practical. Few people lived in cities. Food and energy were produced locally. Transportation wasn’t critical. Important services were provided by individual units — for example a horse carrying mail — instead of an elaborate electronic system that could be disrupted.
Today, things are fundamentally different. We don’t get water from wells, but from vast computer-controlled systems. If the system goes out, we don’t have water. We do not communicate sparsely by letter, but depend also on the Internet. If it goes out, we are in deep trouble. Telephones are not a convenience. They are vital. What does this mean in an age of terrorism?
When everything is interconnected, there are often vital nodes on which whole systems depend. For example, whatever happened in the Northeast to black out so much of the country obviously depended on something vital. There was no fallback.
Anyone with a slight grasp of the structure of the Internet can spend an hour on Google and find the critical nodes on the Internet. Think Northern Virginia, for example. The various backbones and major exchanges are all on the Internet for anyone to find.
The Internet was originally intended to be resistant to disruption because if one node went out, traffic could be routed around the failure. Students of the Internet say that for reasons of convenience, the robustness is no longer there. It’s cheaper to build one crucial node than three to protect against the failure of one.
Get on the Web and look at the structure of air-traffic control. The centers are there, the hands-off mechanisms, how it all works. Taking one of these out would probably not cause huge numbers of deaths. Pilots do not fly their airplanes into other airplanes. But the confusion would be enormous.
How safe are these against attack? I don’t know. Homeland security doesn’t tell me what it has done to protect nodes on the Internet. But destroying crucial nodes isn’t needed to cause massive inconvenience. Tremendous confusion could be caused just by cutting fiber-optic backbones, whose paths are easily discovered.
The blackout makes it obvious there are weak spots in the technological skeleton of the country that can cause fantastic expense and disruption. Any three physics majors could come up with lots of other weak links. Not all of them would require a great deal of sophistication on the part of the terrorists. Digging a hole to cut an Internet backbone requires a shovel and, perhaps, cable cutters.
If we think that terrorism is a serious threat, what steps have we taken to harden critical nodes? If a freak accident can leave the Northeast in the dark, what other similar incidents, perhaps encouraged by explosives, could do the same elsewhere?
Are we going to spend the money to provide needed redundancy? A blackout is not an act of God. It is the result of accepting what looks like it will probably be good enough, as distinct from spending the money to build a system that really is good enough.