The advantages of ham radios in a disaster situation are twofold: They’re free from large infrastructure, and they’re incredibly flexible bits of technology. “An emergency operation system might need a big generator to keep things going, but we can get by with batteries or solar power,” Corey explains. If a natural or man-made disaster takes out power, Internet, or phone lines, “We can do global communications with nothing between the two systems but ether.”
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Eugene Spafford, a computer-science professor at Purdue University and a member of the Naval Academy’s Cybersecurity Advisory Board, has been thinking about all the ways computers work (and fail) since 1979. “So many [technologies] are interconnected in ways we don’t see,” he says, “that a longer shutdown lasting weeks or months would be catastrophic.”
A key example: global positioning systems, better known as GPS. If you were to lose your ability to use GPS to find directions, it’d be an inconvenience. But if emergency services—ambulance drivers, firefighters, and police— were to lose their navigational ability, it could be deadly.
GPS also plays a key role in time synchronization. Power plants, for example, use GPS to ensure that their generators are emitting electrical currents in sync. Mistimed generators can lead to burnt-out unusable equipment, power failures and fires.
But the satellite system that controls such essential functions isn’t foolproof. “A solar flare, certain kinds of attacks that can be committed from the ground, or a hostile nation using anti-satellite weapons could take out our satellite system,” Spafford says. “And because those require a space launch of custom built satellites, we couldn’t just turn those on a day later.” In this hypothetical disaster scenario, that translates to a sustained time without cellphones or GPS-coordinating emergency services, and even the possibility of rolling blackouts.
Radios, though, would continue functioning. “We more or less know how to do the same thing[s these technologies do] without technology, but we’ve forgotten how to do it,” says Spafford. “It’s called deskilling.”
In the digital age, “we’ve run into a lot of deskilling,” he says. “Many people used to be able to remember phone numbers or have phone books, for example—now we look it up online. If that went away, what would we use?”
There are measures in place to make sure we don’t need to find out: There are usually a few spare satellites in orbit, our electric grid is cleverly designed in disconnected pieces. In the case of a cyberattack, it’s unlikely that all of a region (or even most of it) would go dark, as the power systems would be able to disconnect from each other and still generate power.
But a more resilient infrastructure, Spafford explains, would be one with low-tech backups in place, too. Power failures are devastating because the general public doesn’t know how to live without power. “If we had a power failure that shut off all the gas pumps for a month, the Amish would probably survive just fine,” Spafford points out. “It isn’t a matter of training them for that eventuality, it’s that’s the way they live.”