Hackers a Credible Threat to Dams?

Ian Elwood

Hoover Dam ArialWhen I check Twitter in the morning, do I expect to see updates on hydroelectric projects? Certainly! But would I ever expect to see this?

  • Water levels rising, OMG, better open the gates
  • Makin' electricity, makin' electricity, makin' electricity
  • @IntlRivers Hmph. I have never emitted a greenhouse anything!

If the Hoover Dam had internet access, you might see something like this in its Twitter feed. For this I am glad the dam is not connected – but frequent and boring tweets are not the only reason.

Ridiculous as my facetious example may seem, backers of a new bill introduced by the U.S. Congress (S.21) are using anecdotes not too dissimilar to argue that an "internet kill-switch" should be created to protect the nation's infrastructure – such as the Hoover Dam – against "cyber attack."

Wired reports that Brandon Milhorn, Minority Staff Director and Chief Counsel Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs said that he was concerned that hackers might gain control of the Hoover Dam and open its floodgates via the internet. But the Bureau that runs the dam quickly discredited such an example because it is not based on fact – the dam simply isn't physically plugged in to the internet and neither are many other systems like it. While there are other real threats to energy infrastructure out there, the kill-switch legislation may be focusing on the wrong issue.

Just for fun I checked in with a few of our campaigners to make sure I had my facts straight before publishing. Here is what they said:

  • "The internet is not quite all-powerful – and it turns out there are better ways to hack into our energy systems, which is actually becoming a growing problem." Lori Pottinger, Africa Campaigner and Editor of World Rivers Review
  • "Why would attackers go after Hoover Dam, with Las Vegas shining so brightly nearby? Unless there are slot machines in the turbine room. Maybe David Copperfield can wave a giant sheet and make Hoover Dam disappear from thousands of satellite images publicly available online." Elizabeth Brink, Technology Director
  • "I have never heard of a dam being attacked by a computer hacker and find the whole concept quite intriguing. How do you send a computer virus to attack a huge chunk of concrete on a river?" Aviva Imhof, Interim Executive Director

So, while International Rivers might think it was pretty convenient to decommission big dams via email attachments, it doesn't look like it is going to happen anytime soon. Looks like we will just have to keep doing it the old fashioned way.

International Rivers has long argued for more decentralized energy systems as the way to solve people's energy needs without creating mammoth hydro projects such as Hoover. Large infrastructure projects have built-in vulnerability because they are a consolidated means of generating power. The litany of small scale decentralized energy systems that are beginning to be used globally are more resistant to such threats because entire regions do not rely on a single source of power, but draw on neighborhood-level and community-managed sources.

Small scale solar, wind and even hydropower generation can head such vulnerability concerns off at the pass, eliminating the need for heavy-handed legislation and also the dependency on overly-centralized energy infrastructure. Moving toward renewable and decentralized energy is not only good for the environment and human rights, it makes sense from the perspective of energy security as well.

Ian Elwood is the Web Producer for International Rivers, he blogs at:

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