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Former DHS Deputy Secretary Lute: We're Not Prepared for an American Blackout


(Washington, DC)  Former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute said today that the country has a lot more work to do to prepare for the fallout of a catastrophic cybersecurity event, such as a widescale attack on the nation's power grid.  "We're not nearly as prepared as we need to be," she said during a panel discussion following the premiere of National Geographic's American Blackout, which grimly portrays the fictionalized aftermath of a major cyber attack on the U.S. electric system.

A complete breakdown in the U.S. power sector isn't a likely scenario though, according to Scott Aaronson, Security Director for EEI, a trade association for the electricity industry.  "We're the only sector with mandatory cybersecurity standards," he said, referring to the Critical Infrastructure Protection standards mandated by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

And the kind of social breakdown depicted in the film could occur if any one of a number of U.S. critical infrastructure sectors were crippled.  "Deprive of us of food, deprive us of water, deprive us of telecom and you're going to have the same impact," Aaronson said.

"If you would have asked me, can [a total American blackout] happen, I would have said 'not very likely,'" former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden said, referring to his years as the heads of those agencies. Hayden also discussed how there are a growing number of strategic weak points in the nation's defense capabilities because cyber technology has pushed the capability to inflict serious damage, a power once reserved for nation states only, down to individuals.

To survive a catastrophic event, whether triggered by a cyberattack or some other calamity, you have to create elasticity in the disaster recovery system, according to Richard Reed, SVP of Disaster Cycle Services for the Red Cross.  Reed too characterized the massive blackout of the film as unlikely but said "there is always an attraction to low probability, high consequent events."

Real recovery from any disaster lies at the community level, Robert Bristow, Medical Director of Emergency Management at New York Presbyterian Hospital said.  Many communities thrived in Japan following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a subsequent nuclear disaster.  "In Japan, the communities had resilience."

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