Lights Out—Hacking

Lights Out—Hacking Wireless Lightbulbs to Cause Sustained Blackouts

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was widespread and affected people throughout parts of the northeastern and midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada. Approximately 45 million people were affected for as long as two days. In New York alone, 3,000 fire calls were reported due to incidents related to individuals using candles.

There were 60 cases of alarm fires that were caused by the use of candles and two cases of fatalities that resulted from the use of Œames to provide light. In Michigan, candles left burning during the blackout caused a fatal fire that destroyed a home.

The startling issue is not that the Northeast Blackout occurred, but what it revealed: how the developed world takes luxuries like electricity for granted, and how we have come to depend upon it. Moments when our fundamental luxuries are taken away from us cause us to react upon and appreciate our reliance upon them.

We Œip a switch and we expect the instant glow of the electric Œage. We open the refrigerator and expect our food and drinks to be waiting for us at just the right temperature. We walk into our homes and expect the air conditioning to continuously and automatically maintain a comfortable equilibrium between hot and cold temperatures.

It’s been roughly 100 years since we figured out how to generate electricity. Before that, houses were lit with kerosene lamps and warmed with stoves. Our current level of dependence upon electricity is phenomenal; our cities and businesses grind to a halt within seconds of a blackout. The US is powered by three interconnected grids that move electricity around the country: the Eastern Interconnection, Western Interconnection, and Texas Interconnection.


These systems are interconnected by communication between utilities and their transmission systems to share the benefits of building larger generators and providing electricity at a lower cost. Developed nations clearly rely upon the electric grid to empower and sustain their economies and the well-being of their citizens. Computers increasingly operate much of the technology that comprises the grid, inclusive of generators and transformers, and their functionality is accessible remotely through computer networks. As such, the concern over cybersecurity-related threats is high.

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