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The Weak Link: How China Built in a 'Backdoor' Threat that Could Take Down the US Electric Grid

07-12-2021
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(Image credit: CBN News)

Electrical substations are in almost every city nationwide. Most house transformers play a huge part in getting power out to you. The larger they are, the more critical.

"Transformers have been called by many people the 'Achilles' heel' of the electric grid," explained Joe Weiss, an engineer, and independent consultant.

Transformers take voltage sent by power plants and convert it to a level that can be distributed. Essentially, they keep electricity flowing at safe levels. 

While the U.S. electric grid consists of thousands of them, the high voltage carriers make up less than three percent. Even so, they are responsible for transporting 60 to 70 percent of our electricity. 

"These are 500 ton, 20-foot tall, multi-million dollar machines," Weiss said.

They're also custom-made in China and experts like Weiss say, while the U.S. is busy securing its networks, China has the ability and opportunity to sabotage the equipment we rely on them to manufacture. 

Essentially, they've created a "backdoor" into our electric grid.

"What they have is the ability (to do)...they have their finger on that trigger today that they can take over that transformer and everything that transformer supplies coming in or going out. That's a very big deal," Weiss cautioned.

He said this is no hypothetical warning. The U.S. has already discovered backdoor electronics in a Chinese-made transformer. 

It was that discovery that led then-President Donald Trump to sign an executive order in May of 2020 banning, "...the acquisition, importation, transfer, or installation" of any bulk-power systems from "foreign adversaries."

The discovery also led to something that's never happened before.

"The next large transformer from China that arrived at the Port of Houston, was intercepted by the U.S. Department of Energy and taken to the Sandia National Laboratory. Remember this is a 500 ton, multi-million dollar machine, so there was a utility missing," Weiss explained.

Llewellyn King is a journalist who has been covering the energy field for decades. When he approached the Energy Department about the missing transformer he was met with a veil of silence.

"No comment to me is very much a comment. It says there's smoke and there must be fire," King told CBN News.

"So not only do our domestic utilities not know what has been found, our closest allies that also have Chinese-made transformers, do not know what has been found," Weiss noted.

There are more than 200 of these large Chinese transformers in our electric grid today. One accounts for 10 percent of the power going to New York City, another supplies 18 to 20 percent of the power going to Las Vegas. Yet, the U.S. is focused on our cyber networks, something China has already proven it can bypass.

"Instead of trying to hack all of these networks and everything else to get in, all they did was put in some hardware that will allow them to send signals. So instead of sending a voltage signal that's coming from a voltage sensor in that transformer, they can send a signal from Beijing into that piece of equipment," Weiss explained.  

In February of 2021, an arctic blast froze 40 percent of Texas' electric grid. Millions of homes and businesses were left without power. The outages lasted only days, but more than 100 people died. 

Back in 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned a room full of business leaders about the scope of a true attack on the U.S. grid. 

"The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber Pearl Harbor. An attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life. An attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new profound sense of vulnerability," Panetta predicted.

Weiss said the question is not if this kind of attack will happen, but rather, will we even know it was a cyber attack.

"What a sophisticated attacker will do and Russia, and China, even Iran, and North Korea now fit into this, they will make a cyber attack look like an equipment malfunction," Weiss told CBN News.

He points to Stuxnet, the U.S. cyberattack that took out a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. 

"For a year, an entire year, the centrifuges were being destroyed. The people inside could hear those centrifuges screaming. They never even thought that cyber was the problem. They simply viewed it as a systemic design flaw," Weiss said.

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Experts like Weiss stress that our critical infrastructure is made up of engineering equipment and it will take a partnership between engineers and cybersecurity defenders to truly protect it. 

"Our workforce is not trained to address this. The people that understand the equipment have no training in cybersecurity. The people who understand cybersecurity are not trained to understand how an electric grid or a pipeline or anything else works," Weiss explained.

This "backdoor" threat from our adversaries applies to all of our critical infrastructure, not just the grid.  

"Much of that same equipment is used in all other industries, so what's a weak spot for the electric industry is just as much a weak spot for every other industry," Weiss said.

The parts that make up this critical infrastructure are also old, and as we've seen in Texas, susceptible to extreme weather events. So whether it's malicious or unintentional, if these systems go offline, it will be months if not years before we get them back, making us truly vulnerable. 

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