Monday, November 02, 2015

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath

Ted Koppel’s Lights Out is one of the scariest books you are going to read this year, or even anytime in the next five years - if what the book predicts hasn’t already happened by then.  And you don’t have to take my word for it, because a look at the book’s subtitle says it all: “A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”

It is the third part of that subtitle that I find particularly terrifying.  I have survived the aftermath of a major hurricane or two.  The last one knocked out my electricity for exactly 14 days, but during that extended downtime most of the rest of the city had regained power, so the social structure around me did not break down.  While living without power even for two weeks is no picnic, food, water, and cool air were available only a short drive away.  

Now imagine that your state and all of those surrounding yours are without power and that no one can tell you how long it will be before power is restored.  Communication has, in fact, broken down to the extent that no one can even tell you why the grid is down.  How long do you think it will be before for food and water shortages develop in the region’s major cities?  How long before the smell of raw sewage forces everyone from their homes?  How long before armed thugs decide it is the perfect time to simply take what they want and to hell with everyone else?  According to Koppel, you have maybe a week if you are lucky.  Simply put, it very soon becomes an “every man for himself and his family” situation.

Lights Out is divided into the three sections indicated by the book’s subtitle.  “Cyberattack” sets the stage by describing exactly how malicious hackers have already penetrated the computer systems that control the distribution of electricity throughout the United States.  Koppel, and the experts he interviewed, believe that software “Trojan horses” have already been left behind by the governments of Russia and China, and he fears that Islamist terrorists representing groups such as ISIS are close to having the capability of doing the same thing.  Bad as this is, the unleashing of the contents of those Trojan horses already in place is not extremely likely because the Russian and Chinese governments understand that the U.S. has placed similar malware inside key computer systems of their own governments.  This is the nuclear determent theory of the Cold War replayed.

No, what scares Koppel and his experts is the possibility that terrorist-related hackers might do the same thing – and they have nothing to lose by triggering the collapse of the electricity grid of the U.S.  The main goal of groups like ISIS is to bring the world to its end, so those groups would welcome both the complete collapse of the U.S. social structure and any attempt at retaliation on our government’s part.  But how do you even begin to retaliate against a group with no government and nothing to lose?  And identifying the source of such attacks is not easy, making it likely that the U.S. would retaliate against the wrong country or group anyway.  The terrorists are holding all the best cards in any such confrontation.

The second section of Lights Out makes very clear just how unprepared this country is if and when such an attack occurs.  Not only are there no emergency plans in place to handle such a catastrophe, experts do not even agree that it can happen.  That means that nothing…nothing…is being done to prepare the country for what could be a war to forever end the United States as we know it today.

Author Ted Koppel
I found the book’s third section, “Surviving the Aftermath,” to be a little disappointing.  I came away from this section without picking up any ideas that I, as an individual concerned about surviving the certain chaos that will quickly develop following the kind of massive and extended power outage that Koppel predicts, could actually use.  Rather than offer the kind of advice I hoped for, the author more often points out the futility and ultimate foolishness of most of what individual “survivalists” and more structured groups (such as the Mormon Church) are already doing. 

So where are we?  Most people are not even aware of the potential threat, much less trying to do anything to keep themselves and their families safe if the threat materializes.  Most politicians don’t even want to talk about this.  Industry experts cannot agree on the likelihood of such an attack on the U.S. or what to do if it does happen.  Almost no one with any authority is talking about making the changes that would safeguard the collapse of this country’s electrical grid.  And the time bomb already inside that grid continues to tick.

Yes, Lights Out will make readers very, very nervous, but we have to hope that the right people read this book and take it seriously.  Read it yourself.  Talk about it and pass it on to others who will read it and talk about it.  Do your best to help Lights Out get the attention it deserves. 

Post #2,607


  1. I'm on the last chapter. It has really taken me a long time to read this because...well, it is scary. And depressing. On the other hand, I've enjoyed it because it makes me think, and Koppel clarifies and articulates the situation so well. This book could certainly lead to better preparation if the public pays attention and demands an accounting.

    1. I hope it gets noticed because this is extremely important. Frankly, I don't have a lot of confidence that anyone in the industry is willing to do anything...for the reasons listed in the book...and politicians are so incompetent these days that we can't count on them either. Scary thought.