Every now and then, I’m forced to publish something dangerous.
I want to tell you the story of one such idea. It has a happy ending. Of sorts. More on that in a second.
Some ideas make you enemies. Some run the risk of making you look stupid. Some can kill your credibility if you present them in the wrong way.
As a publisher I weigh these downsides up with nearly everything I share. Some things are worth the risk. Some enemies are worth making. In the last year alone, I’ve been accused of running a front for Mossad… and seen calls online for people to “kneecap” me.
I won’t pretend either of those threats were pleasant. But they’re part of the job. If you choose to publish provocative ideas, you must accept some people won’t like what you have to say. Once you decide you want to please everyone you guarantee you will interest no one.
Case in point. Earlier this year James Allen, our resident energy expert here at Southbank Investment Research HQ, presented a pretty controversial idea to me and the rest of the business.
James’ beat is energy. But it’s more than just energy stocks. James and his team are interested in the way that energy shapes the geopolitical landscape of the world. His controlling idea is that if you don’t understand energy, you cannot understand the world.
James made several eye-catching claims when he presented his research. The most provocative of all? Britain’s energy infrastructure is fragile… and those fragilities can and will be targeted by foreign powers.
I’m paraphrasing. James actually claimed that weaknesses and vulnerabilities within the power system could lead to “the day Britain stands still”. A day when the lights shut off, trains grind to a halt, industry freezes… and millions of people see their lives grind to a sudden halt.
James went a step further. He claimed that these vulnerabilities would not be exposed accidentally – instead they’d be targeted by foreign powers.
I listened to his case. He made it well. And so I chose to take a risk. I published his work.
And we caught a lot of flak. One fine journalist even bombarded our customer service agents with phone calls and threats to refer our work to the government.
We ignored him.
And we were right to.
Anyone who had their lights shut off, found themselves stranded on a train, or saw the power at their business go off last Friday night can testify to that. Look at the pictures of King’s Cross station. That’s what a “grinding halt” looks like.
The short version – which you’ll find in the dictionary next to the phrase “critical vulnerability” – is that two different power stations failed at precisely the same time. This led to large parts of London, the South East and Wales going dark.
The failures involved were a gas-fired power station in southern England and a wind farm in the North Sea. Maybe fate has a sense of humour. On one hand, an old world, fossil fuel-powered station fails. At the same time, a renewable, green energy station fails too.
Turns out it doesn’t matter whether you go green or rely on fossil fuels. You’re only as strong as your weakest point. And if that weakest point is the system itself… it’s blackout time.
The authorities claim this wasn’t a result of a cyber-attack or any outside interference. But then, they would, wouldn’t they? Nothing beats watching your capital come to a shuddering, dark halt like finding out it was the result of enemy interference, and could therefore happen again.
To quote James’ work:
Consider the events of 2017…
It began with a series of strange emails that began appearing in the inboxes of “Big Six” energy companies. These businesses all form part of Britain’s “Critical National Infrastructure” – or CNI. Effectively, they control systems vital to life in the UK.
These emails seemed innocuous. Most of them were job applications or CVs. But they weren’t. As a Daily Telegraph report put it:
They raised no alarm bells, as they were cleverly designed to resemble messages that staff at power stations and operating electricity distribution networks expected to receive. All of the emails included Microsoft Word attachments which, when opened, allowed Russian hackers to quietly infect computer networks.
Once inside the networks, the hackers were able to smuggle out documents, including passwords and crucial information about the operation of the UK’s energy grid. But what happened then went far further. The hackers sought out devices which directly controlled parts of power stations.
In short, Russia found a way to compromise our critical infrastructure.
Then it used that position to attempt to bring the country to a standstill.
According to reports, the attack:
Could have allowed them [Russia] to remotely control power networks, switching off electricity systems, or causing disruption in the UK’s energy network.
Even without such a strike, the election day hack cast a spotlight on the worrying vulnerabilities in Britain’s energy network.
In other words, we came within a day of the country “powering down”.
And in the words of GCHQ director Ciaran Martin, it’s a matter of “when not if” a major attack succeeds.
I don’t know whether there was an attack. My guess, based on the evidence above, is there was. I spent Monday afternoon talking with an expert on national security who felt sure it was a Russian attack. Who knows?
But the chances of two stations failing at the same moment – and leading to such a knock-on effect with power down throughout the system – seem too remote. The most obvious answer would be: someone planned this.
And if they didn’t, you can bet they’re planning now the system has had its vulnerabilities turned inside out and upside down.
I’ve asked James and his team for permission to share his original work with you again. Take it seriously. Don’t scoff. Think. And listen to what he thinks you need to do about it.
Publisher, Southbank Investment Research