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Photo of Buenos Aires on 16 June, available on website of Desdemona Despairs

The Meltdown in the South American South

On 16 June, almost all of Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Paraguay, Brazil and Chile were plunged into darkness as the result of a system-wide shut-down of the interconnected parts of the five countries’ electricity grids.

Of course, the region has experienced electrical breakdowns in the past. This is the first time, however, that it has had to contend with a system-wide disruption.

The initial reaction from the Argentine government was that the outage was the result of a technical failure but a unique one. Normally, the system would have been capable of shutting down a misfunctioning local grid, thus protecting the system as a whole.

The official report that has now been made public by Buenos Aires adds little to the initial official line to the effect that the breakdown resulted from a systemic technical failure. There was no reference to a cyberattack, notwithstanding the fact that this possibility was alluded to by the head of Argentina’s largest electricity provider.

So, what was this all about? Maybe, as Buenos Aires has said, it was indeed a technical breakdown, albeit a more serious one than the region as ever known. Maybe, an individual or a group of non-state hackers were behind the attack, but there have been no demands for compensation. Maybe, one or the other state actor was the culprit. The latter is the hypothesis that I tend to favour.

This is admittedly a wholly speculative interpreation. That said, the major strategic powers are all said to have developed serious capacities to launch cyberattacks. There are also several middle-range states that have also been developing a capacity: according to David Sanger of the New York Times, some 35 to 40 smaller states, including Iran and North Korea, have developed, or are developing, a cyber-attack capacity.

With respect to the attack, my working hypothesis is that it may have been launched by one of the more important cyber-powers, namely Russia, or China. I do not exclude the US from the list of possible predators, but I think there would have been a leak by now to this effect if it had been the culprit.

Why a cyber-attack? The answer may not be anything more complicated than the fact that cyber-powers need to try out their toys.

Why the southern South American states? Their region is geographically distant from any of the top three cyber-powers. They face no obvious enemy that might profit from the fallout from the attack.

A further consideration may be that Russia or China, if they are indeed responsible, wanted to send the message that even Argentina is not a stranger to the kind of energy meltdowns that have regularly visited Cuba and Venezuela, key allies of theirs in Latin America.

A further idea is that the attack was prompted by a desire to embarrass the current Argentine government, which has raised electricity prices considerably over the past year or so. That said, the opposition, notwithstanding the fact that elections are set for October 2019, have not mounted a major attack against the Macri administration in the wake of the outage.

The capacity for cyberattacks to be not only devastating but also anonymous in large part explains their attractiveness as a tactical and/or strategic weapon. They also have the advantage of being calibratable to a wide range of security contingencies. They are furthermore relatively cheap to develop and deploy. And they lend themselves to efforts to launch “false flag” attacks, whereby an aggressor country creates a situation in which another country is thought to be the real aggressor.

Cyberweaponry can * democratize” warfare, making it possible for two-bit dictators to undermine the infrastructure and credibility of much larger actors.

A Connection with the US-Iranian Crisis?

While I am in a speculative mood, let me try to connect these ruminations to the ongoing US showdown with Iran. The immediate reason for the crisis was the shoot-down of an American drone on 20 June. Whether this happened over international or Iranian waters is still unclear.

President Trump has explained that he called off an attack on Iran in retaliation for the destruction of the drone because in response to a question he directed to one of his Generals ten minutes before the attack as to the number of possible casualties, he was told approximately one hundred and fifty.

This is hardly convincing. The idea that Trump gives a hoot about how many Iranians a US military action might kill is a stretch. The proposed casualty count is hardly credible. And then, this is not the kind of question that comes up ten minutes before an attack is launched.

That said, for Trump to parrot that he was concerned about the proportionality of the theoretically presumed Iranian loses in return for the destroyed drone puts him in a good light: hey, our Pres actually cares about human lives, despite what all those libs are saying about him.

So, what might have really gone down here?

My hunch is that Trump may have received a clandestine message from either Russia or China as the US military was planning its military action on Iran to the effect that if the US went through with it, it would experience a cyber-event such as that which was visited upon the southern South American states.

As to the question of whether Trump has access to a secret line of communication, I can again only speculate. That said, the Globe and Mail has published a piece asserting that Trump warned the Iranians of a pending attackvia a secret message passed by the Omanis. Trump has, of course, denied this. How the Globe and Mail became aware of this, I do not know. Around the same time, however, Reuters ran a report quoting Iranian sources as saying that there had been a warning from Trump.

I have no idea of what actually happened. The larger point is that this is the kind of situation that we will need to be increasingly alert to and prepared for. As we move through the 21stcentury. we have to contend with the possibility of devastating attacks on critical infrastructure such as the internet, power grids, water-management systems and the like.

* * * * *

As I see it, there are essentially only two ways to deal with the kind of cyber-threat described above. One is to send a very clear message to hostile states to the effect that even if their complicity cannot be exactly ascertained, it will be assumed. A second is to build a retaliatory cyberattack capacity nationally - and in cooperation with one’s allies - that will be second to none – and to make sure that the rest of the world knows about it.

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