While discussing legislative measures concerning cyberterrorism, several legislative aides on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee said that we need to protect ourselves from hackers who could open Hoover Dam and kill thousands. But is that scenario even possible?
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is shooting down a key legislative talking point: that the internet "kill-switch" legislation is needed to prevent cyberterrorists from opening the Hoover Dam's floodgates.
The brouhaha started last week, when legislative aides on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee offered Threat Level examples of why the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act was needed. The bill, one aide said, would give the president the power to force "the system that controls the floodgates to the Hoover Dam" to cut its connection to the net if the government detected an imminent cyberattack.
At a panel in Washington last week, a GOP staffer working on the bill was even more terrifying. "We are very concerned about an electronic control system that could cause the floodgates to come open at the Hoover Dam and kill thousands of people in the process," said Brandon Milhorn, staff director of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "That's a significant concern."
It turns out, though, that all the Hoover Dam doomsaying doesn't sit well with Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the power-generating facility on the Arizona-Nevada state line.
"I'd like to point out that this is not a factual example, because Hoover Dam and important facilities like it are not connected to the internet," Peter Soeth, a spokesman for the bureau, said in an e-mail. "These types of facilities are protected by multiple layers of security, including physical separation from the internet, that are in place because of multiple security mandates and good business practices."
The Hoover Dam, which provides hydroelectric power to Arizona, Nevada and California, has featured in cybarmageddon scenarios since at least 2001. In June of that year, USA Today claimed in an article on cyberterrorism that hackers "might send a worm to shut down the electric grid in Chicago and air-traffic-control operations in Atlanta, a logic bomb to open the floodgates of the Hoover Dam and a sniffer to gain access to the funds-transfer networks of the Federal Reserve."
Fast-forward a decade later, and the same argument is being made for the proposed kill-switch legislation.
Soeth said in a telephone interview that the bureau had recently contacted backers of the legislation to set the record straight.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Egypt's internet blockade, supporters of the U.S. legislation are rushing to make the case that they're not trying to give the president the emergency power to similarly kill American internet access.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who are behind the proposal, put out a statement Tuesday saying, "We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the president, or anyone else, to shut down the internet."
The "emergency measures in our bill apply in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure - the networks and assets most essential to the functioning of society and the economy - to ensure they are protected from destruction," the statement reads.
The legislation is expected to be introduced soon to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. That committee approved the bill in December, but it expired when a new Senate took office last month.
Photo: Bureau of Reclamation