Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cyber-Terrorism: Real or Imagined?

In a recent report on National Public Radio (NPR), the reporter reminisced about the big power outage in the Northeast ten years ago this week. While that outage was brought about by a weak line in Ohio, experts wonder if we don’t have a more imminent threat posed by cyber criminals hacking into the power grid and triggering outages.


In reality, there are three different power grids in the US, shown in map form on The Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection, and the Texas Interconnection can supply power to each other, but they also have fail-safe mechanisms as well. Despite the separation, each of them is still very much vulnerable to a breach of their computer systems. This was first highlighted during the Year 2000 or “Y2K” issue where there was concern that incorrect date entries could cause local or widespread outages. The problem at that time was mitigated but did bring to light other vulnerabilities.

Computer Use In Power Generation

When coal-fired plants, hydroelectric facilities, and nuclear facilities were first built, the use of computers was minimal because frankly, they were simple and added little to no value. A large number of operators were needed to monitor switches and relays to keep the facility running. Later, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) allowed facilities to monitor, collect, and process data from one central location instead of having multiple operators monitoring each switch and each piece of equipment.


With the spread of the Internet, a power plant could now take the SCADA concept one step further and monitor everything REMOTELY. Since everything is now connected to everything else, why not consolidate all of the data collected by the SCADA systems and process it at one time and in one place? Big data meets big power. But, there’s the risk. To do this, you need to have many computers and many controllers all connected to some form of the Internet, be it public or private. Hackers or cyber criminals also have access to that same Internet and, potentially, to your computers and controllers. Whether they access your systems for notoriety or for political purposes, the threat of bringing down parts of the power grid is very real.


As noted in the NPR report, there is legislation in the works to order public utilities to mount a counteroffensive, but the utilities object to these measures. Power companies are already working to thwart any potential threat that may arise, but it is really going to take a partnership between power distribution engineers and computer experts. They each know their specialty, and together they can develop measures to prevent attacks or, at least, monitor and deal with threats.

Do you think the threat of cyber attacks on the electrical grid is real? Should power companies take their equipment off of the Internet to prevent attacks? Can we find a middle ground between attack readiness and returning to the time of manual operators? Let me know your thoughts.


Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.

The Power of Social Networking

In the spirit of true confessions, I must admit that I don’t check my personal Facebook account very often and I rarely post anything. A recent check, however, surprised me and got me to thinking about trends in social media and the power of social networking. A good friend of mine shared a brief post that essentially read, “My husband is having a stroke. The ambulance just left the driveway and I am on my way to the hospital. Please pray for us.” I was taken aback by the fact that she would take the time to make a post when she clearly had more pressing priorities. As I thought about it more deeply in the coming days I realized that she was simply reaching out to her community in a time of need. Her community, in this case, was her collection of online friends, some of whom could have been across the street but others were across the country or across the world. This highlights the importance and power of social networking.


As little as 150 years ago, we were not a mobile society. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the first Model T Ford came off the assembly line in 1908, and the first commercial airline flight in America came in 1914 although affordable air travel did not come until after World War II. Today, we are such a mobile society that we have friends, family, and associates strung around the country and around the world. One of the ways we keep track of them all is through social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Social Media Survey

In a 2011 survey on social media habits by the Lares Institute, it showed that we are increasing our use of social media and connecting with old and new friends. According to the survey “55 percent of respondents had ‘friends’ from social media they had not actually met, and 77 percent of those respondents had five or more friends they had not met, with 21 percent reporting that they had fifty or more friends that they had not met.” Our networks are larger than ever.

In Times of Trouble

The lines are blurring between our physical and online networks. Part of the power of a distributed social network is that we can put out a plea for help and even if someone cannot help us directly, someone may know someone who can assist us. Combine this with mobile technology that allows us to send and receive updates immediately and you have a very powerful, very flexible network of friends that you can call upon for help or to share good news. It is real, it is immediate, and people often want to help other people in need. This is the power of a distributed social network.


In times of need, do you reach out to your physical network or your virtual network? Which one is faster to respond? Are they really one and the same? What do you think is the power of a social network? Let me know your thoughts.


Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.

Always On, Always Connected

I had the chance to camp for the last two weeks at a very large jamboree on the East Coast. While it was nice to disconnect for a while, I experienced some unexpected angst about being out of the digital loop. To be clear, the camp was well connected with wi-fi but I chose to concentrate on camping as opposed to being distracted with the normal stream of correspondence and news. It got me thinking about how hard it is to break out of the “always connected, always on” world. Is it good to leave it behind once in awhile and focus on the process of living, or is the angst that I experienced normal?

Mobile Computing

With the advent of smart phones and other portable computing devices, we are now connected 24/7. No longer do we turn off our computer and go home for the day or turn off our computers and go to sleep at night. Our computers are on all the time and we are on all the time. It is common to see people walking down the street glued to a small screen as opposed to being aware of and enjoying their physical surroundings. On this same trip, I was in a beautiful gothic cathedral and witnessed people engaged with their devices rather than enjoying their magnificent surroundings. Why even go out if you are more present in the digital world than you are in the physical world?

Hyper Connectivity

In a 2011 article in Family Circle, Christina Tynan-Wood discussed the balance between always being connected and being present. In the article, Tynan-Wood describes a recent family vacation to a remote cabin. When they arrived, they discovered that there was no cell signal. Panic set in. She states: “The uncomfortable feeling that we were missing out on something important overtook our intentions to enjoy downtime together.” I believe that more and more we tie ourselves to our network and feel the satisfaction of being needed in that network. In doing so, however, I wonder if we are missing out on the sheer joy of being present in the physical world?

Being Present

I am trying to strike a balance between being connected in the digital world and being present in the physical world. In a May 2013 article, social strategist Amber Naslund suggests that finding that balance is a personal choice for each individual. The author states: “…the way I use my phone or my computer or my iPad is my own, and when I’m the only one affected, doing so doesn’t make me less present, it just makes me present in a different way, on different terms, in a different context. It’s every bit as real to me.” Maybe the secret is to focus on one task and one conversation at a time.


Is being connected 24/7 the new norm? Can you be connected and present at the same time? Have you found the perfect balance for yourself? Do you ever experience angst about not being connected enough or not being present enough? Let me know your thoughts.


Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.

The Power of Information

Have you ever stopped to think about the power of information? During times of war, positional information, and information about the enemy gives each side an advantage. The current controversy over the use of drones is all about the collection of information and how that information is used. Now that we are squarely in the information age, are we collecting and using information responsibly?

Information As a Competitive Advantage

During World War II, the Axis went to great lengths to encode correspondence and information collected about the Allies. They were collecting information that could be used to give them a competitive advantage. We do the same thing in the modern corporate world. We use information about our product or service, our competitors, and our customers to gain a competitive advantage. We use information about our customer to persuade them to choose our product or service. Perhaps we know something about their personal choices or affinities or affiliations that we can target.

Stewards of Information

Have you ever thought of yourself as a “steward of information”? Do we take our responsibility seriously enough when it comes to handling information and aggregating information that leads to particular decisions? The information about potentially faulty O-rings was available prior to the Space Shuttle Discovery explosion but it was ignored. If we knew that we had information that could potentially affect life and death, would we take it more seriously?

Information Makes Our Lives Easier

On the positive side, information can make our lives easier. We may see some information gathering as intrusive but it can lead us to organize our lives and quickly get to the products or services that we want. A good example is Through the many products that I have ordered in the past, they have compiled a profile of who I am and what I like and they can suggest a new product based on my past purchases. Some may see this as upselling or selling me things I don’t need, but their recommendations are generally right on.


I believe that if we thought about the true power of information, we would be more mindful of our work. Think through all of the times in history when information made a great difference. Think of Paul Revere and the information that he passed along in his famous 1775 ride to Lexington. It turned the tides in the Revolutionary War. You could say that that small piece of information changed history.

Do you work with information that could change history or save lives? Do you recognize it as such and take it seriously? Do you recognize the power of information in your life and work? Let me know your thoughts.


Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.