Today’s American homes are dotted with Internet-connected devices that allow you to manage your home from your smart phone. You can open your front door when you’re not home, adjust your thermostat while driving and see what your cats are up to – anytime, anywhere. Smart meters send power to the grid from solar panels on the roof and EV chargers juice up your car overnight when electricity is cheap. But what does all this mean for the American way of life? Does the smart grid make us vulnerable to hackers and terrorist attacks? Does it endanger our personal privacy? What is the role of the government and private companies in protecting and policing this new frontier?
At a recent Climate One forum, General Keith Alexander, a former director of the NSA, called the internet-connected world “a hacker’s dream.” But, he added, “It’s also a dream for us as a nation.”
“There are some phenomenal things that are going on,” Alexander continued. “And just because we’re connected doesn't mean we have to forgo civil liberties and privacy. I honestly believe we can do both – and should do both.”
“We can't economically run this country without connectivity,” agrees Alfred Berkeley, former director of the World Economic Forum USA. “We have these banking transactions that are going on by the billions, and we don't think a thing of it. And the reason we don't think a thing of it is because they’re reliable…and we have benefited from that so much that we don't even notice.”
But as with any system, there’s always the chance that something will break down, or go haywire. It never hurts to have a backup plan, says Berkeley. “I do buy flashlights. I do buy candles. I do buy the things that give me back up. And I think we're going to have to do more of that as things get more connected.”
But having the lights go out or the milk sour is one thing. Having your bank account, company emails or national space program at risk for cyber hacking spells a different kind of danger.
“For the last 200 years is we've been secure because of two oceans, and hard to get to,” says Alexander. “And now with the Internet, we’re connected to the rest of the world.” That leaves us vulnerable to a number of threats, which Alexander breaks out into three areas: theft of money and identity, theft of intellectual property, such as ideas for new products, and national security.
Alexander believes that the American people should have a discussion about the balance between perceived threats to civil liberties and the needs of national security. “And it ought to be a debate in a democracy that puts all that together,” Alexander continues. “Because at the end of the day, we choose, we choose which way we’re going to go.”
Dave Mount, partner in a venture capital firm who specializes in the green energy sector, says there are lessons to be learned from recent high-profile hacker attacks, such as those on Sony Pictures, Target and the Democratic National Committee.
“The first is that typically the way in is pretty unsophisticated,” he says. Hackers send an email or use a USB stick to infiltrate someone’s computer. “The second may be that the work is once in, it is pretty sophisticated.” In one hacking incident in Germany a steel mill was programmed to burn itself down, destroying millions of dollars of equipment.
The third lesson, continues Mount, is that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” In other words, the more we know about cyber-attacks, the more we can do to prevent them. The US government is now working with industries to hopefully fix any vulnerable spots that arise. Mount says their plan is that “if we can't fix it in those 45 days, we’re still going to expose to the world that this is a problem.
“And I think that they use that sort of the concept of sunshine as a disinfectant, to really create some incentive for those companies to do something about it.”
But should government play a role in developing cybersecurity for the private sector? How much should the two work together, and how much would that compromise our own civil liberties and personal privacy?
In response to a question from an audience member, Alexander said he believes that government and the private sector should collaborate “under a framework that we agree with.”
Issues such as child pornography, human trafficking and terrorism, he says, are important enough to have everyone working together to stop them.
“So I think those kinds of things should be set up in a framework that is transparent, that the American people can say, I agree with that. And if necessary, have a vote on it…it gets back to, so where and how do you set the framework and where do you set the bar? And that's the debate that we should have.”
All that said, Mount believes the interconnected world of the future is a rosy one.
“I have a very exciting vision in my mind of a connected grid that is powered by solar, powered by wind. Taking power into people's homes, powering battery packs and them being used it to power electric vehicles; maybe electric vehicles that drive themselves.
“And I think that – I hope that seems obvious to us 20 years from now, and that that's where we’re headed.”
Photography: Sonya Abrams