As Venezuela endured one of its worst blackouts in recent memory this week, the government repeatedly claimed the widespread outage of power, phone and internet was due to a foreign cyberattack attempting to unseat its president. While the reality is that Venezuela’s blackout was most likely due to chronic underfunding of its electrical infrastructure and deferred maintenance, the idea of a foreign nation state manipulating an adversary’s power grid to force a governmental transition is very real.
In 2015 I explored the concept of “cyber first strike” in which governments would increasingly turn to cyberwarfare either on its own or as part of hybrid warfare to weaken an adversary prior to conventional invasion or to forcibly and deniably effect a transition in a foreign government.
Interrupting power and water supplies, disrupting traffic patterns, slowing or interfering with internet access, causing smart homes to go haywire and even remotely triggering meltdowns at nuclear power plants were all topics increasingly being discussed in the national security community at the time as legitimate and legal tactics to undermine a foreign state.
In the case of Venezuela, the idea of a government like the United States remotely interfering with its power grid is actually quite realistic. Remote cyber operations rarely require a significant ground presence, making them the ideal deniable influence operation. Given the U.S. government’s longstanding concern with Venezuela’s government, it is likely that the U.S. already maintains a deep presence within the country’s national infrastructure grid, making it relatively straightforward to interfere with grid operations.
The country’s outdated internet and power infrastructure present few formidable challenges to such operations and make it relatively easy to remove any traces of foreign intervention.
Widespread power and connectivity outages like the one Venezuela experienced last week are also straight from the modern cyber playbook. Cutting power at rush hour, ensuring maximal impact on civilian society and plenty of mediagenic post-apocalyptic imagery, fits squarely into the mold of a traditional influence operation. Timing such an outage to occur at a moment of societal upheaval in a way that delegitimizes the current government exactly as a government-in-waiting has presented itself as a ready alternative…
Such outages can quickly turn a population against its government while making it almost impossible to definitively prove foreign intervention.
In the end, regardless of what actually happened this past week in Venezuela, it is likely that cyber-based infrastructure attacks will continue to grow as a weapon of modern warfare.