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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Sport
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Moodle Developer (PHP ,Linux, Apache, MySQL, Moodle)

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Moodle Developer (PHP ,Linux, Apache...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior .NET Web Developer - Winform / MVC

    £21000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Award-winning pharma softw...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Java Developer

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Java Developer is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there