“The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned starkly last week. Most commentators took his declaration that “the warning lights are blinking red” as a reference to state-sponsored Russian hackers interfering in the upcoming midterm elections, as they did in the 2016 presidential election. But to focus on election interference may be to fight the last war, fixating on past attacks while missing the most acute vulnerabilities now. There’s reason to think that the real cyberthreat from Russia today is an attack on critical infrastructure in the United States—including one on the power grid that would turn off the lights for millions of Americans.
We know what Russia is capable of because we can see what it’s done elsewhere. A staff report from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations found evidence that ahead of 2016, Russia had attempted to manipulate elections in 18 other countries. Now intelligence agencies and security companies have connected Russian hackers to the shutdown of a German steel mill, the cutting off of phone and Internet service to some 900,000 Germans, and most ominously, two disruptions of the power grid in Ukraine. The right takeaway from Russian interference in 2016 is not just that Washington needs to protect American elections; it’s also that what Russia does in cyberspace in its near abroad should be a warning about what can be done in the United States.
In December of 2015, Russian hackers turned off the lights in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Western Ukraine, leaving some 230,000 customers in the dark. The attack shut down 30 power substations and disconnected them from communications systems so they could not be remotely restarted. A second attack a year later targeted substations in Kiev. Ultimately, the attacks were relatively contained: the 2015 power outage in Ivano-Frankivsk lasted only six hours, and the 2016 attack affected just 20 percent of Kiev’s power for only about an hour.
But the relatively limited nature of the Ukraine attacks should not be
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