Lights Out

  • by Ted Koppel
  • Narrated by Ted Koppel
  • 8 hrs and 10 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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 generators, 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.

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What the Critics Say

"Ted Koppel's unparalleled reporting skills are on full display in Lights Out. A fascinating and frightening look at just how vulnerable we are to a cyber attack." (Anderson Cooper)
"Lights Out is a timely warning about the vulnerability of America to a massive cyber attack that would cripple all we take for granted - electricity, communication, transportation. This is not science fiction. Hats off to Ted Koppel for putting us all on alert." (Tom Brokaw)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Too much poetry, not enough prose

Virtually everyone is familiar with Ted Koppel's sonorous voice; as a presenter of many television documentaries, and as the host of the long-running current affairs program 'Nightline', he is an icon of the television journalism genre.

Unfortunately, his style translates poorly into book form. The mix of prose and poetry which makes a one hour television program flow smoothly, becomes rather oppressive, when the attempt is made to translate into book format.

The subject matter is certainly interesting: it's the proposition that the United States is poorly prepared to withstand a cyber-attack against the nation's power grid. The first 20 minutes, or so, of the audiobook presentation is occupied with the potential consequences of a prolonged and widespread power outage. Unfortunately, this occupies only a small fraction of the book, and is only lightly explored, even though it becomes apparent that a severe, prolonged loss of power over a widespread area would indeed become catastrophic.

Koppel them explores, via interviews with various experts, the methodologies by which a cyber-attacker could possibly trigger such an event. The story is something of a counterpart to the tale of 'Stuxnet', the American/Israeli cyber-attack against Iran's uranium enrichment program, in which the PLC's (programmable logic controllers) of Iranian centrifuges were infected with a highly devious worm that caused damage long before the Iranians were aware of the vulnerability.

In the case of a potential cyber-attack against the power grid, the targets would be SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Aquisition) systems, which are a more sophisticated version of the PLC's used in the Iranian enrichment program. An attack of SCADA systems could, theoretically, result in widespread power outages and would include damage to equipment (most notably, 'super-transformers') which form the backbone of our power distribution grid.

As an electrical engineer, I am familiar with both PLC and SCADA systems, although Koppel does a credible job in explaining these devices and systems in language clear enough for the average reader.

However, his cautionary tale strikes me as a bit less than convincing. While the Stuxnet worm was a demonstration of the ability of clever firmware writers to inject damaging code into these systems without detection, the same paradigm might not apply to a system as widely diverse as the American electrical power grid. The Iranian situation was much different... a far more isolated environment in which the types of equipment used, and the manner in which they were interconnected, were constrained to just a small handful of sites. In fact, the Stuxnet attack was directed at just two types of PLC's, both manufactured by a single manufacturer (Siemens). The US power grid, on the other hand, is a broad, widespread, and highly diverse system, and of necessity, contains many safeguards against the kinds of events (such as overloads) that would jeopardize the system as a whole. The US system is also based on a very wide variety of devices, from many different manufacturers.

This is not to suggest that the US system is in any way invulnerable to cyber-attack; however, the Stuxnet experience probably resulted in a little-known but undoubtedly thorough review of cyber security among all US power companies.

The validity of the premise may be controversial, and I'm not discounting the premise entirely. However, the presentation of the material, Koppel's sonorous voice notwithstanding, left me less than either satisfied, or convinced.
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- Norman B. Bernstein "Engineer, sailor, and prolific reader of non-fiction"

Fascinating but incomplete

This was a very interesting book. In a lot of ways it was preaching to the choir as I already realize the danger of a large-scale power grid failure. I have taken some small steps to self-sustainability both because of environmental concerns and because it never hurts to have useful skills. However, I don't believe Mr Koppel did a strong enough job proving the likelihood of such an attack. The possibility, yes definitely. But not the likelihood. I also believe that he left out a great deal about how people should prepare on an individual basis. While this was clearly not a manual on self-reliance or preparedness, the two examples of Preppers he gave were rich dilettantes. I think that as a warning to the general public this book fell short, and as a warning to people in power it's too softball. Still, it was far more readable than the book "One Second After", not too mention less right wing, and he highlights some interesting groups that are trying to put in place safety nets should something of the scale of massive power grid failures ever happen. Definitely worth reading.
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- Amazon Customer

Book Details

  • Release Date: 10-27-2015
  • Publisher: Random House Audio