Brazil’s Blackout Spurs Hacker Speculation

Commentary by Alexandre Marinis

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied,” said English journalist Francis Claud Cockburn.

Brazilian officials haven’t yet explained why a massive power outage sent more than 70 million people into darkness for four hours Tuesday night. Their initial explanation is that a storm knocked down power lines. But you have to wonder if bad weather could really pull the plug on the power grid covering 40 percent of the country.

Here’s one way to get at the truth: If we hear government officials deny it was a cyber attack, then we’ll know it was the cause.

In May, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “We know that cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid and that in other countries cyber attacks have plunged entire cities into darkness.” Obama didn’t identify the places, but intelligence and private security sources say one target was Brazil, according to a “60 Minutes” report broadcast Nov. 8.

With Brazil’s presidential election less than a year away, the power failure triggered an instant buzz. Politicians in the Democrats and the Social Democratic parties, who oppose president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, accuse the government of failing to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Their main target is Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked candidate for president, who headed the Energy Ministry from 2003 to mid-2005.

Less Worse

Lula’s supporters seem most interested in showing how this episode was less serious than the widespread energy rationing that occurred in 2001, when the Social Democrats ran the country.

Political differences aside, this much is clear: countrywide power outages are extremely rare; all the official explanations offered so far are unconvincing; and the longer it takes Lula to come up with an explanation that makes sense, the more incompetent both he and Rousseff look.

Government officials and utility operators said the blackout probably happened after a rain storm disrupted two transmission lines, overloading a third one and causing a cascading effect that automatically shut down the Itaipu hydroelectric plant. The world’s largest plant in terms of electrical output, Itaipu supplies almost 20 percent of Brazil’s electricity and had never been forced to shut since opening in 1983.

This explanation may sound logical, but it doesn’t appear to be accurate. Meteorologists from Brazil’s respected National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE, ruled out the possibility that storms caused the event. There are no reports of a cyclone in the area where the outage began. The closest lightning was two kilometers to 10 kilometers (1.2 miles to 6.2 miles) away from the first transmission lines to fail.

Unlikely Cause

More important, the lightning strikes, which are constantly monitored, were weak and “wouldn’t be capable of shutting down the line, even if it hit the grid directly,” the INPE said.

Nonetheless, Energy Minister Edison Lobao blamed the weather. If lightning can knock out power in 18 of Brazil’s 27 states, this tropical country is in serious trouble.

It is tough to say which possible explanation is worst. Citing the weather seems to be patently false. Blaming poorly maintained transmission lines suggests the whole system is more vulnerable than imagined. Suggesting human error caused nearly half the country to go dark sounds even more ludicrous.

Blame Someone Else

The government should just say that a cyber attack caused the blackout. It wouldn’t be the first time. Hackers knocked out the power in Rio de Janeiro in January 2005 and in the state of Espirito Santo in September 2007, affecting more than 3 million people, according to last week’s “60 Minutes” report. Brazilian government officials dispute the story.

Obama’s speech on cyber warfare offers Lula a perfect escape from the tight spot he’s in. By accusing hackers, he and his cohort Rousseff can avoid looking incompetent. Although cyber attacks can be carried out by terrorists, Brazilians are more likely to believe that the culprits were mischievous teenagers. Soon they will consider this event no more serious than the graffiti covering dilapidated city walls.

Better yet, the government should announce that federal police will conduct a thorough investigation to catch the criminals responsible for this horrendous act against the people of Brazil.

Lula won’t lie if he admits hackers did it. My dictionary defines hacker as “a person who uses a computer system without a specific, constructive purpose or without proper authorization.” Lula’s government is filled with those folks.

(Alexandre Marinis, political economist and founding partner of Mosaico Economia Politica, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Alexandre Marinis in Sao Paulo at amarinis1@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: November 12, 2009 21:00 EST

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