Wow, We are So Tech-Vulnerable!

New York  I’m going to keep saying it over and over again. I’m not paranoid. Never have been. I am definitely NOT paranoid. And, that’s always been true, but recently I’m saying it over and over again, I guess, hoping that I believe it.

You know how these things work. First a small seed or association gets planted in your mind where it can grow in the dark corners and jump out and surprise you later. For me that was an article I read in the magazine, Wired, about how hackers, likely state-supported from Russia, were messing with Ukraine full-time and big-time. The last two winters in the throes of December, they have proven that they can sneak in and turn the electrical power grid there upside down and twelve ways from Sunday. The detail in the piece was the upset in the Ukraine, but the bottom line warning was that Ukraine was a practice field for the main contest, and that was hitting the main grids that power Europe and the United States.

In New Orleans last week, Entergy, the multi-state electrical and nuclear power conglomerate that provides service, sent out a message that the entire Central Business District would be without power for some hours in the middle of the day. As a public company they had to provide some minimal details, and so they did. They claimed there had been vandalism to one of their substations in the CBD.

Damn, I wanted to believe that, even as odd as it sounds. Having read the Wired story though, I was worried. They ended up claiming that someone had stolen 50 pounds of copper welding wire. Case solved, they said. I’m still scratching my head though. How would the theft of some copper wire force the company to shut the city’s throbbing commercial heart down for hours?

And, then at about 1:30 PM one afternoon last week I couldn’t send an email out or access our server. I was getting ready to text our server guy to complain, but stopped when everyone in the office said Cox Cable, our internet provider had gone down citywide. Cox is a private company. They were saying nothing at all. Word was that they would be down until 8:00 PM that night, but they came back on about 5:30 or so. Cox never provided an explanation. I absolutely know they were hacked!

Nothing much it seems we can do, but it does make you realize how much we depend on these common utilities like electricity and internet, and how totally vulnerable we – and all of the systems we depend on – really are. We feel like sitting ducks!

Then we read about all of these computer bugs lifted from our own National Security Agency that are being used for billions of dollars of so-called ransomware attacks, where you have to pay someone, somewhere to unlock your own computer. I’m flying within hours to Budapest to do some workshops for activists and organizers, because Hungary is undergoing an undemocratic assault on nonprofits, activists, and any government opponents. Do I dare use my computer without connecting to a VPN or virtual something network? Would I be risking surveillance and attacks on our organizations and members?

Is this the way we are all going to have to live and work? One eye over our shoulder, tapping away on our essential work and communications devices and wondering any minute whether they could go rogue?

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Time to Take a Hard Look at Utility Companies – Again!

STILL BURNING: The coal-fired power plant near Independence, Ark.
STILL BURNING: The coal-fired power plant near Independence, Ark.

New Orleans   The other day I was talking to an archivist as part of an oral history project about ACORN, and we were covering the early 1970s, and as we got ready to march forward to the 20/80 campaign, she stopped me and said, “What about the utility campaigns?” Good point, and that’s where we will start next time we meet, but it also was a wakeup call and a reminder that gas, electric, and water utilities need to be front-and-center organizing targets once again just as they were in the 1970s for both the same and different reasons.

The responsibility of utilities for clean water is obviously front page news these days, underlining the lack of infrastructure investment and, sadly, the willingness to inflict damage to citizens, especially minority and low-and-moderate income families with lead and an array of poisons. Environmentalists have been hammering on power generating companies for some of the same problems as well as trying to wean them from coal burning plants and towards more alternative fuels. The cheapness of oil and gas right now makes that push a little easier, but it’s a fight.

The battles of the 70s certainly included the issues of coal and the famous fight of ACORN in Arkansas to downsize the plans for what would have been at that time the worlds’ largest coal burning plant on White Bluff on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff proposed by Arkansas Power & Light part of Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, but the fights were also over pricing. The costs were escalating for consumers, while businesses and heavy users in industry were paying pennies for power and being subsidized by the small customer or the “biscuit cookers,” as gas mogul, Witt Stephens used to refer to all of us. Investor owned utilities, as public utilities, are regulated by public authorities either elected or appointed depending on the state, but that also means that legislators are always open season for utility lobbyists so guaranteed rates of return and paddy cake handling is all too common.

Maybe we’re about to go to war again though as indicated by a huge dispute in central Louisiana with CLECO, an investor owned operation headquartered in the middle of the state and serves only Louisiana residential customers, almost 200,000 of them, and wholesale customers in Mississippi as well. CLECO has the highest rates in the state, and that along with its monopoly position drew the interest of a private vulture firm that specializes in operating huge infrastructure projects. Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets is named after an Australian bank, but it’s a US-based operation with offices all around the world and big time assets as well. It specializes in monopoly products that are essential services like ports, airports, and of course utilities. One of its recent properties is the Hawaii Gas company. There can’t be a more captive consumer base that being the sole gas provider on the islands!

Macquarie is trying to buy CLECO to keep singing that song, and CLECO’s board was good to go, but the Public Service Commission is elected in Louisiana and so far has refused to approve the merger. Most interestingly they are standing in the way over the very issue that makes CLECO so attractive to Macquarie, the exorbitant utility rates. Macquarie is trying to sweeten the pot by offering consumers a couple of months of free power. Several of the commissioners aren’t fooled though and are demanding that the rates be reduced by 20% or more before they’ll vote yes.

Who knows if they’ll stand pat or fold, but it’s worth starting to look at utilities again. Gas prices are going up. Coal is on the ropes, but utility bills are continuing to rise, so it may be time to dust off some of the old strategies and tactics and take a hard look at these companies again and suit up for battle.

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