Leading computer expert warns of cyber attack on National Grid

 

The national electricity grid is wide open to a devastating cyber attack that could wreak havoc on the economy and make the 2008 financial crisis seem puny by comparison, a leading computer industry guru has told The Independent.

James Martin, who has made a fortune from making predictions about future developments in computers, warned that the only sure way of safeguarding the electricity grid against a coordinated cyber assault is to disconnect it completely from the internet.

Martin, who has advised various governments during his long career and has donated $150m (£95m) to Oxford University for studying future problems, said that the national electricity grids of Britain and the United States are especially vulnerable because they are controlled by computers that use the internet to communicate.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Independent at his home on a private island off Bermuda, Martin warned that there is ample evidence that hostile foreign agents have already targeted the American electricity grid in order to test whether it would be possible to cause widespread blackouts for long periods of time.

“There is quite a lot of evidence that people have been hacking into the American grid, and probably the grids of other countries to,” Martin said.

“In the American grid they’ve found quite a large number of Trojan horses and trap doors, they’ve found quite a lot of hidden malware, not coming from the States but coming from somewhere outside the States,” he said.

“If you knocked out all the power in America, it would be devastating. Normally when you get a blackout it comes back very quickly but there have been some that don’t. If it was a deliberate attack, then the people attacking it would try to do damage that could not be repaired quickly,” he said.

“If they caused the grid to crash it would be much worse than 2008. This is known today, but what I find rather alarming is that although it is known the authorities are not really trying to stop it by making it secure.

“You could make it extremely secure and one very important part of it would be to disconnect it from the internet completely so there is no on-line interface between the internet and the grid,” Martin explained.

The computers controlling the electricity grids in Britain and the United States are constantly sending messages to one another over the internet in order to balance supply with demand. This enables hackers to gain access to critical control systems, Martin said.

“The country is totally dependent on its electricity. It’s totally dependent on its power grid and, in the US, there are 10,000 electric power stations and there are many hundred thousand miles of grid connecting them together, and the grid is exceedingly complex.

“There is almost no storage so it’s got to switch electricity constantly to get the electricity from the generator to the customer by a very complex path and it’s doing that all the time, constantly. And everything is controlled by computers, totally and absolutely,” he said.

“Computers are doing the buying and selling. Computers are giving the instructions to the generators and the transformers and the sub-grids.”

Officials in both the US and Britain have already warned that their respective electricity grids have been targeted by hackers. In Britain, Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, said last October that the threat of a cyber attack on critical national infrastructure such as the grid “is a real and credible one”.

Meanwhile, Joel Brenner of the US National Counterintelligence Executive said in April 2009 that the US authorities have detected “Chinese network operations inside certain of our electricity grids”.

Despite knowing the risks, however, Martin believes that not enough is being done by western governments to address the threat, largely because the security of the power supply is seen as the responsibility of the private companies in charge of the grids.

“If you talk to government they say it’s not their problem because everything on the grid is private corporations and we can’t tell individual corporations how to behave so it’s up to them to make it secure,” Martin said.

“Certainly an outside entity could have a capability today to send many different malware messages into the grid at the same time in such a way that you could take down most of the grid, and may be all of the grid,” he said.

“That avalanche could be done deliberately, by hackers or by a country that is deliberately planning a cyber-attack for some reason on another country,” he said.

“The grid is full of huge transformers and pumps that are one off, which means that if you knock them out you can’t go and buy them off the shelf. If you picked out the things that could not be bought or not replicated quickly, and there a lot of those, then that would be damage that you couldn’t repair quickly.

“You have a large amount of company-to-company automation and all of that could be put out of operation. If it was put out of operation it could do immense financial damage, enormously greater than the 2008 crash,” he told The Independent.

The only real solution to the problem posed by a cyber attack is to develop a completely secure communications network that is not connected to the internet. However, Martin fears that this will only be done after a major crisis.

“If you set out very rigorously it would probably take about five years to make the grid really secure, but what might trigger that would be some kind of electronic 9/11, some kind of cyber attack that was equivalent to 9/11,” he said.

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Sport
Jose Mourinho restrains his assistant manager Rui Faria, Fabio Borini celebrates his winning penalty and Connor Wickham equalises for Sunderland
sportChelsea 1 Sunderland 2: Deafeat is extra bitter as former Chelsea player Fabio Borini scores late penalty to seal victory
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
VIDEO
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Apprentice C# .NET Developer

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We provide business administration softw...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit