Last night's 60 Minutes piece on cyber security ("Sabotaging the System") led with the story that blackouts in Brazil in 2005 and 2007 were caused by computer hackers who took over the systems that control electrical generation facilities. This wasn't a revelation. A senior Defense Department official noted the Brazil attack in a barely noticed speech two years ago, and Wired magazine's "Threat Level" blog recently picked up the trail. Nor was the 60 Minutes story, six months in the making, full of major scoops.
But that hardly matters. Although the piece didn't make much news, it was news to most Americans. Full disclosure, I know the producer, Graham Messick, and while I don't have any special insights into how he approached the subject, I think it's fair to say that his work will change the cyber security debate in some fundamental ways.
For starters, millions of Americans now know that it's possible to plunge a city into darkness via the Internet. They know the strategic significance of such an attack to the United States, thanks to the cogent and succinct analysis of former intelligence chief Mike McConnell and Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They also know that cyber spies have pilfered many millions of dollars through online banking fraud, far more than traditional bank robbers. And they know that sensitive government information has been stolen by cyber spies, including some who managed to worm their way into the secret network used by military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, all of this was known before last night, and it has been reported by journalists like me and others at major newspapers and cable networks. But 60 Minutes has a unique ability to condense information and deliver it to a mass audience in prime time.