'American Blackout': Is National Geographic's take on cyberattack accurate?

The National Geographic Channel’s fictionalized account of a 10-day blackout following a major cyberattack draws on previous events and expert opinions to paint a rather bleak picture.

How would the average US citizen cope in the wake of a catastrophic cyberattack?

Not so well, it turns out.

As the power grid goes down across the country, the streets quickly descend into chaos while consumers ransack stores for bottled water and canned goods.

Those without sufficient cash handy are quickly in dire straits, since no electricity means no credit cards or ATMs, either.

Meanwhile, the heroes of the day are “doomsday preppers” who have had the foresight to stockpile a couple years’ worth of bottled water, batteries, and military-style meals-ready-to-eat in secret underground bunkers.

This is the scenario explored in “American Blackout,” the National Geographic Channel’s fictionalized account of a 10-day-long power outage precipitated by a cyberattack. The program airs Sunday.

“Blackout” draws on previous events and expert opinions to paint a rather bleak picture, its creators say.

The film tends to endorse the maxim, widely held in national security circles, that society is roughly nine missed meals away from chaos.

After that point, people are “pretty well prepared to do whatever it takes” to meet their needs, David Lyle, the National Geographic Channel president, warned as he introduced the film at a première in Washington, D.C., this past week.

US officials have echoed these concerns. “A massive and well-coordinated cyberattack on the electric grid could devastate the economy and cause a large-scale loss of life,” warns Richard Andres, a research fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Certainly, the average American doesn’t seem to be too optimistic about the national response in the event of, say, a major catastrophe like the loss of the power grid.

That said, 9 in 10 people in a recent National Geographic Channel survey said they believe the world will experience a major catastrophe, and of those, about one-third expect it to occur “less than a year from now.”

In case of such a catastrophe, 57 percent of those surveyed said they would turn to friends and family for help, while 14 percent said they believed the government would be “the most help.”

Three-quarters of the respondents said they believed the country will experience a “catastrophic cyberattack” in their lifetime, and more than half say they don’t think the United States is ready for it.

So just how likely is a national power outage precipitated by a cyberattack, anyway?

“Not very likely,” former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden said in a panel following the film.

That said, most of the power grid is the responsibility of the private sector, he added. For this reason, the private sector “at the end of the day is the main body” that should take the lead in national cyberdefense, Mr. Hayden said in a discussion the next day at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It was a statement that caused a ripple in the panel as Hayden argued that “the government has to conform its activities” to enable the private sector to take the lead in cyberdefense, much like the US military takes the lead in the defense of American airspace, for example.

“We expect the government to control and defend our airspace,” Hayden said. “I don’t think that’s true – or at least it’s not as true – in the cyber domain.” 

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