If the electrical power distribution system is completely cut off from the Internet, that’s a good thing. Despite some recent scary news stories, it should be emphasized that there’s nothing to indicate hackers could use the Internet to control the power grid.

News reports surfaced last month quoting anonymous sources as claiming Chinese and Russian hackers had put software on American electrical power distribution systems.

If true, this would be a concern to Canadians, given that both countries, in practice, use the same system.

Still, there’s no reason to believe criminals can access electric systems from outside. Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of homeland security, was quoted in the Montreal Gazette as saying the power grid is “vulnerable to potentially disabling computer attacks.” This is probably true, but just about any organization could be attacked through an inside job.

The Wall Street Journal article quoted a “senior intelligence official” as saying the “Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure,” which is probably true if the Chinese government has people looking at satellite photos of North America, noting the locations of power transmission lines and plants. If anyone from a foreign government has taken a peak at the Ontario Power Generation Web site, or at topographical maps and noted the location of infrastructure, then we could say they have attempted to map our infrastructure as well

The Wall Street Journal also states: “The flow of power is controlled by local utilities or regional transmission organizations. The growing reliance of utilities on Internet-based communication has increased the vulnerability of control systems to spies and hackers, according to government reports.”

The fact that these two statements are in the same sentence does not mean Internet-based communication can be used to hack into embedded systems controlling power distribution networks. Although some “smart grids” use networks to read meters and control systems, Hydro One’s WiMAX network does not use the public Internet.

Before we lose sleep over this issue, we should find out whether cybercriminals are anywhere near as threatening to power distribution as freezing rain.

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