Lights Out

 by television journalist Ted Koppel.



Publication date: 2015
Category: Nonfiction

Summary (from the publisher):

In this investigation, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.

Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before.

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.”

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid. The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

ScienceThrillers review:

Ted Koppel is a television journalist known to millions for his 25-year role hosting Nightline. His new, chilling, book-length work of investigation Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, reflects his TV news sensibilities, and not in a good way.

In many places, Lights Out reads like a transcript of a Nightline episode, with the needling questions and a response from a squirming official. Some useful insight emerges from this approach, but it remains superficial. Personally I prefer books written by thinkers with more of an academic bent.

Koppel achieves his main purpose, which is to frighten the reader into awareness of a terrorism threat that could make 9/11 look like a picnic. A cyberattack on the nation’s electrical grid could suddenly send huge swaths of the country back to the 1800s. A terrorist-caused blackout could far exceed any natural disaster in scope and duration. We might face months or years of power loss over many states. How could urban areas possibly survive?

This question drives Koppel’s investigation as he reveals that no one has an answer, or even a plan.

For raising awareness of this issue, Koppel gets my praise. However, chapter 1 of the book pretty much does the job. The rest of the pages are either repetitive, or they wander off topic. Koppel delves into the general issue of cybersecurity, and also devotes quite a few chapters to preppers, people and organizations who used to be called “survivalists.” I personally enjoyed these chapters most of all, as the TV journalism style is well-suited to telling the stories of some folks in Wyoming, and the Mormon church, which takes preparedness as a point of doctrine.

Koppel’s insistence that we need to do a better job with disaster preparation in general (for any kind of attack or natural disaster), is well taken. I agree with him that citizens no longer take enough personal responsibility for civil defense or preparedness, instead delegating to the state, which even in a perfect world cannot manage the task alone. His arguments for the government, military, and civil society to do more to beef up cybersecurity or specifically protect the grid fail to take into consideration the multitude of competing concerns, such as terror attacks on water supplies, or biological warfare, or a radioactive dirty bomb. We can only do so much to “keep ourselves safe,” the vague standard by which many Americans now judge their leaders.

Most unsatisfying for me, Koppel left some big questions unanswered. I’m mystified as to the technical reasons why attacking the grid would affect such a large area. His use of analogies explained nothing. Also, he argues that the power companies’ desire to protect privacy is hampering the effort. I ask, why is privacy such a big issue for them? What information do they have that is so valuable? Finally, the book is totally lacking in information that “you can use.” Having convinced the reader that each of us needs to do something, he fails to direct that motivation into action.

But perhaps that’s his point. We need a plan developed on high, so to speak, that will be communicated to all of us–before the power goes out.

I recommend this one as a library check-out, not a purchase. Read chapter 1 and the first couple of chapters of part 3, on Wyoming and the Mormons. Skim the rest if you find it interesting enough.

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