The U.S. fears for its grid; China's communist government worries about its grip.
That is the strategic insight gleaned from the fracas over Chinese engineering student Wang Jianwei's article titled "Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid."
Wang's study appeared last year in the Safety Science journal and has been online since spring 2009. Its abstract's first sentence reads: "The vulnerability of real-life networks subject to intentional attacks has been one of the outstanding challenges in the study of the network safety."
Wang, a student at China's elite Dalian University of Technology, addressed known power-grid weaknesses and ways to attack them. Wang claims he wants to reduce grid vulnerabilities and the published paper is an alert.
Several U.S. defense analysts who read the paper, among them Larry Wortzel, were not so sanguine. In testimony on March 10 to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Wortzel mentioned Wang's paper in passing, but suggested it served as a template for an attack on the entire U.S. power grid.
U.S. media sensationalists presented Wortzel as a fretful alarmist. Context matters -- computers controlling power grid operations have been attacked by hackers. Wortzel is a retired U.S. Army colonel, an intelligence officer and a specialist in Chinese affairs, and served as U.S. military attache in China. Wang sees his job as demonstrating grid vulnerabilities; Wortzel is in the business of assessing political, economic and military threats, capabilities and intentions.
Wortzel's entire testimony, however, provided extensive background on U.S. cyber-defense concerns regarding China. After discussing China's high-profile cyber-intrusions on Google's gmail accounts and attempts to steal Google source code, Wortzel identified three types of "malicious Chinese computer network operations": (1) operations that solidify "political and economic control in China"; (2) spy ops gathering "economic, military or technology intelligence" data; (3) cyber reconnaissance of "U.S. military, government, civil infrastructure or corporate networks for later exploitation or attack."
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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