Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Review: Lights Out by Ted Koppel

ISBN: 055341996X
Published: October 27th, 2015
Publisher: Crown
Read from November 24th to 30th, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In this tour de force of investigative reporting, 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.


I knew very little about the power grid and how it all worked when I began this book, but I admit to being intrigued by the idea of a possible cyberattack. It's such a new thing, so dealing with one is uncharted territory, and as someone who spends a great deal of time online, knowing more about the possibilities interests me.

And I did find many aspects of this book addressed the interest I had. Even when it came to discussion of how the power grid works I was interested, which I wasn't expecting. I'd never given much thought to how the power grid works. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've always just taken it for granted. I got that power lines transported power from power plants, of course, but I'd never stopped to think about the interconnectedness of it all. I don't think I'd ever known that various power plants were even connected through a grid before this book. I enjoyed learning more about how that worked.

I also enjoyed much of the discussion on how a cyberattack on the power grid could potentially happen and the possible aftermath. Maybe part of it is the thrill of reading about potential disaster, but I believe it's true that being aware that such an attack could happen is at least the beginning of being prepared for one.

Unfortunately, those aspects of the book seemed to be far less of the book than I would have expected. A large chunk of the middle of the book (it felt like more than half of it actually) focused on preppers. These preppers are preparing for disaster, but they're not exactly preparing for a cyber attack on the power grid. In fact, the author describes his experience at a prepper convention, and when he mentions that he brought up a potential attack to preppers, he notes that his suggestion was accepted but that he could tell that wasn't a disaster the preppers had on their mind. They were preparing for other things.

That's perhaps why focusing on preppers felt so out of place. It didn't feel like it had enough to do with what the author had set out to write about. I didn't read this book to learn about preppers. In another context, reading about the Mormon church's intense preparation for disaster would have fascinated me, but since it wasn't what I picked up the book for, I found myself bored. I wanted to read more about cyberattacks and what the book was supposed to be about. Instead I was reading about preppers who were preparing for events that could have nothing to do with cyberattacks.

I have no idea why the author decided to focus on preppers so much like he did. It almost felt like he should have just written a book about them and thrown the parts about cyber attacks out or taken what he had and turned it into two separate books on each topic. As it was, I think there was some great stuff on cyberattacks in this book, but I wanted more.

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

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