Waiting for a Cyberattack: Save Some of Those Typewriters

From a column by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post of December 7, 2015:

When it comes to cyberwar and cyberterrorism, we need to think the unthinkable, says veteran TV journalist Ted Koppel. And for Koppel, the unthinkable is this: Someone hacks into the nation’s electric power grid and causes large parts of it to crash for a prolonged period.

Anyone who has endured a blackout from a storm or mechanical breakdown — probably most Americans — knows how frustrating and infuriating it can be. You lose your lights, refrigeration, communications and sense of control. But two certitudes limit the anger and anxiety: First, outages are usually small geographically; and second, we know that power will be restored in days or weeks.

Not so with a cyberattack, which aims to cripple the system and cause chaos. Lengthy disruptions may be widespread. Then the effects become horrific, as Koppel writes in his new book, “Lights Out.”

Darkness descends on cities and suburbs. As refrigeration fades, food inventories are exhausted. Resupply is difficult, because — among other reasons — “gas stations without backup generators are unable to operate their pumps.” Water supplies are also paralyzed by inert pumps. “There is little running water . . . toilets no longer flush.” Routine payments, being mostly electronic transfers, are virtually impossible. People feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable.

There are emergency plans, Koppel writes, for natural disasters and electrical outages “of a few days” but no plan for many millions losing electricity “for months.” Once people realize they’re “on their own,” there’s a “contagion of panic.” The likelihood of looting is obvious.

The Internet, whatever its advantages, has become a potential “weapon of mass destruction,” Koppel argues.
From an earlier post:

If Typewriters Could Talk: “When All Your Computers Crash, We’ll Still be Here”

When I left the Washingtonian after 43 years there, I couldn’t resist writing a love note to the typewriter that always delivered. See the last graf—the old Royal sits in my home office ready to go back to work.
It finally happened. On Saturday morning, Jack came into the office, took me off the desk, carried me out to a car double-parked on L Street, and drove me away. I’m now on a beat-up typewriter table in what seems to be a basement office in a house. No car horns, lots of birds singing, and a dog that looks at me and occasionally barks.

Not a surprise but still kind of sad. Sure, I was being used less and less, but I still felt useful—I was always really good at short notes.

The first hint that something was changing was back in the 1980s: Jack was talking to a writer named Fred Barnes about joining the staff, and Fred asked if the magazine had computers. When told it didn’t, he said he couldn’t write on a typewriter. What kind of journalist would say that?

He didn’t come to work at the magazine, but we did begin to buy some really dumb-looking computers.

I remember hearing the salespeople say that if we spent $100,000 on their computers, we’d be able to save that much in salaries because the computers were so efficient. Ha! The staff is bigger than ever, and we now have two guys called IT managers and everyone treats them like the most important people in the office.

Okay, we Royals were pretty simple, but does anyone remember that we never crashed? The only care we needed was a new ribbon a couple of times a year. When we needed maintenance, there was a place called North’s Office Machines on K Street. About ten years ago, Jack asked the man there where he found people who could repair typewriters. He said, “I have two Russian immigrants. They love typewriters, and they can’t bear to see one tossed out.” I’m not sure why Russians love us so much—maybe we made a difference over there.

I do miss the old days. On Monday mornings you could hear the typewriters in the office come to life. Phones started ringing. All the noise gave the place a feeling of life, of energy. Editors and writers walked around and talked with one another.

Now on Monday mornings, people come in and it’s very quiet—they sit at their computers and the phones never ring.

It makes me nostalgic for the wire-service days when the writers really used us. Plus there were 20 teletype machines in the bureau, and they sent out bulletins with three bells ringing. Some days there were news flashes with five bells.

One thing I don’t miss: the cigarette smoke. I remember hearing writers say they couldn’t write if they couldn’t smoke—they meant it—and by the end of the day the air got pretty bad. But I loved the way they caressed my keys when they were thinking—that made it easy to handle the ashes.

Enough. I know there’s no going back. Jack has been writing and editing on a computer a long time, and last summer he got an iPhone and began to use me to send people notes about Facebook and Twitter. Some days he didn’t seem to pay me much attention, and I felt a little hurt when visitors laughed at me like I was some Civil War relic.

But then I think about Shane Harris, one of our newer writers, and how he talks about the dangers of cyberwarfare. What if the Chinese managed to shut down the Internet and blow up all those digital clouds? I hope one of the writers or editors might ask, “Anyone know what happened to that old Royal typewriter?”

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