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Brazil: Was the blackout caused by hackers or UFOs?

The worst blackout on record that cut electricity to 18 of Brazil’s 26 states leaving nearly 60 million people in the dark last Tuesday has been this week's hot topic on the Brazilian blogosphere. Power went out for more than five hours in most Brazilian cities, after transmission problems knocked Itaipu hydroelectric dam out. Itaipu dam, the world’s second-largest hydroelectric power producer, located on the border with Paraguay, was completely shut down for the first time in its 25-year history. Parts of Paraguay were also affected.

Among the many reports about “what-I-was-doing-when-the-lights-went-off” conspiracy theories reign: from one blog to another, the blame for the power cut that left up to a fifth of the population without power shifts from President Lula to Dilma Rousseff, his candidate in the next presidential elections, and from UFO to hackers.

From Sonic Downloads

From Sonic Downloads

Authorities have blamed a severe storm for bringing down a power line, cutting two other lines and ultimately shutting the dam, causing a domino effect that rippled across the country. Arauto do Futuro [pt] contests the official explanation based on reports by the National Institute for Space Research [pt] stating that there was a minimal risk that lightening would have hit any facility. He implies that economical interests might have turned Itaipu off:

Não seriam estes ‘apagões‘ a desculpa perfeita para acelerar a construção de PCHs ou as transposições de rios no Brasil? Contribuindo para o ‘programa de aceleração’ da destruição da natureza e da beleza cênica em diversos locais que ainda restam preservados nesse país?

Can these ‘blackouts’ be the perfect excuse to accelerate the construction of small hydroelectric dams or of river transpositions in Brazil? Can they contribute to the ‘program to speed up’ the destruction of the natural, scenic beauty that remains preserved in many places in this country?

Coincidence or not, Dilma Rousseff, the Labour Party presidential candidate in the 2010 elections said in an interview a few weeks ago that there was no risks of blackout again in Brazil, referring mainly to the 1999 Southern Brazilian blackout. For Francisco Schieber [pt], the government served up lame excuses:

Apagão é rotina no Brasil. Uma média de um a cada seis anos, desde 1985. Bom, qual a diferença deste pros demais? Comecemos falando que este se deu no governo de um presidente que afirmou categoricamente que em seu governo jamais aconteceria algo de ruim (e até de bom, se olharmos com um pouco mais de cuidado suas declarações) que aconteceu no governo anterior. “Pois nunca antes na história destepaiz” aconteceu um apagão com proporções tão convincentes. Não restaram dúvidas: tivemos mais de três horas para concluirmos que realmente foi um apagão (ou blecaute, se preferirem). “Nunca antes na história destepaiz” um apagão foi tão mal justificado. E por que foi tão mal justificado? “Porque nunca entes na história destepaiz” o governo ficou tão desarmado com o que aconteceu, ou seja, nem eles sabem.

Blackouts are routine in Brazil. On average one has occurred every six years since 1985. Well, what is the difference with this one? Let's start by saying that it happened during the government of a president who categorically stated that the bad things that happened in the previous government would never happen in his term (and not even good things, if we look a little more carefully at his statements). “For never before in the history of this country” has a blackout happened on such a convincing scale. There is no doubt: we had more than three hours to conclude that it was really an “apagão” (blackout or if you prefer). “Never before in the history of this country” was a blackout so poorly justified. And why was it poorly justified? “Never before in the history of this country” was the government  so overwhelmed with what happened, that, not even they know.

On the other hand Eduardo Guimarães [pt] suspects political forces and sabotage. He wonders whether it is possible that some sectors of the media knew the outage was going to happen, as most media outlets seem to have been prepared for the coverage:

Fiquei impressionado com a eficiência da imprensa. Às três da manhã, quando a energia elétrica retornou, havia montes de matérias nos portais de internet sobre um “apagão” que se abateu sobre vários Estados do Sul e do Sudeste no fim da noite de ontem. E os jornais todos saem hoje com matérias amplas sobre o assunto.

Detalhe: a falta de luz começou depois das 22 horas, muito próximo do fechamento das edições do principais jornais do país, que mostraram-se incrivelmente mobilizados para coberturas tão emergenciais. Pareceu até haver um esquema de “cobertura” muito bem montado.

O termo “apagão”, que foi o que vi no G1 e no UOL, deverá ser generalizado e explorado à farta pela mídia. Ela tentará vincular um episódio isolado e desencadeado por causa desconhecida ao racionamento de energia que ocorreu no fim do governo Fernando Henrique Cardoso devido a falta de investimentos em geração de energia naquela época.

A exploração de um episódio isolado, porém, terá vida curta… Mas será que terá mesmo? E se o episódio não for isolado e outros apagões misteriosos voltarem a ocorrer?

I was impressed with the efficiency of the media. At 3 AM when the electricity returned, there were many news pieces on the Internet portals about a blackout that hit several southeastern and southern states last night. And all the newspapers came out today with extensive reports on the subject.

Detail: the power outage started after 10 PM, very close to the closing deadline for the early editions of the country's major newspapers, which proved to be incredibly well mobilized for emergency coverage. There even seemed to be a very well assembled “coverage” scheme.

The term “apagão” [a pejorative word for blackout], which was what I saw on G1 and UOL, should be generalized and exploited heartily by the media. They try to link a single episode triggered by unknown causes to the rationing of electricity that happened at the end of [former president] Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government due to a lack of investment in power generation at that time.

The exploitation of a single episode will be, however, short lived… but will it really? And what if this episode is not isolated and other mysterious blackouts take place?

São Paulo, by @douglasmiguel

São Paulo, twitpic by @douglasmiguel

Some people believe the power cut was caused by extraterrestrial visitors, as every UFO community knows, when an Unidentified Flying Object is near a grid it causes interference due to the UFO's electromagnetic effect. Mario Barros [pt] publishes a picture and this account of a reader who claims to have seen a flying saucer in São Paulo skies on the night of the power cut:

Por alguns segundos, enquanto ainda estava perto, pude ver claramente que se tratava de um objeto escuro, negro, de forma retangular, com 4 luzes brancas de brilho constante em cada ponta e 2 luzes vermelhas que piscavam de maneira diferente uma da outra na parte de baixo. Tentei filmar o objeto com o celular, mas não consegui captar nada. Não faço idéia de que altura estava, mas estava bastante baixo. Não havia som algum e me pareceu ser menor e mais rápido que um avião comercial. A medida que foi se afastando não consegui mais ver a parte sólida e escura do objeto, somente suas luzes vermelhas que piscavam e as brancas estáticas. O objeto surgiu a leste dirigia-se rumo a oeste e o observei até que ele desapareceu no horizonte. Tudo isso durou cerca de 1 minuto e meio.

For a few seconds while it was still around, I could clearly see that it was a dark object, black, rectangular in shape, with four white lights of constant brightness at each end and two red lights flashing differently from each other at the bottom. I tried to film the object with the mobile phone, but could not capture anything. I have no idea what height it was, but it seemed quite low. There was no sound and it seemed to be smaller and faster than a commercial airplane. As it moved away, I could no longer see the solid and dark part of the object, only its red lights flashing and white static lights. The object appeared to the east and moved towards the west and I watched it until it disappeared in the distance. All this lasted about 1.5 minutes.

For some the power outage was the work of hackers. Coincidentally, a few days before the outage, a report by CBS news magazine 60 Minutes blames hackers for targeting control systems causing the electrical blackouts impacting millions of people in Brazil in 2005 and 2007, when Brazil suffered electricity shortages and rationing. This fueled new claims that hackers were behind this cut. Could that be possible? A 23 year old hacker, Maycon Maia Vitali [pt] believes it is feasible. He has showed in his blog the security flaws of the website of one of the government agencies responsible for managing energy:

Ou seja, além de ter encontrado uma falha de SQL Injection, já descobri de cara que o sistema funciona rodando um banco de dados IBM Informix. A partir deste passo ficaria extremamente fácil para qualquer pessoa com conhecimento intermediário de SQL Injection invadir o Operador Nacional do Sistema Elétrico.

É interessante ressaltar que não tenho qualquer ligação com o ocorrido no dia 11 de novembro de 2009, e que irei parar a divulgação neste ponto para não comprometer mais ainda o funcionamento do sistema (odeio escuro). Não estou afirmando que o ocorrido foi causado por um ataque hacker, porém se tivesse sido, é importante deixar bem visível que o mesmo aconteceria sem qualquer dificuldade.

Espero que este post abra os olhos do governo, para que não possamos sofrer danos maiores em situações mais críticas.

Besides having found a failure of SQL Injection, I found out straight away the system works by running an IBM Informix database. From this point, it would be extremely easy for anyone with intermediate knowledge of SQL Injection to invade the National Electricity System Operator.

I would like to stress that I have no connection with what happened on November 11, 2009, and I will stop releasing information at this point in order not to further expose the operation of the system (I hate the dark). I'm not saying that the incident was caused by a hacker attack, but it is important to make it clear that the same could have happened without any difficulty.

I hope this post opens the eyes of the government, so that we do not suffer major damage in critical situations.

São Paulo, twitpic by @douglasmiguel

São Paulo, twitpic by @douglasmiguel

Of course, a power outage of this dimension has fueled the Brazilian sense of humour too. Fabiano fayerwayer has collected the many jokes that did the rounds on Twitter, which kept many people entertained and informed during the blackout as a “great informal coverage of what is happening in many different parts of the country”:

Os engraçadinhos de plantão voaram em cima, e as piadinhas sobre Itaipu não param de aparecer. Tanto que resolvemos fazer uma pausa na nossa programação para trazer para vocês os 5 melhores tweets do apagão até agora! Confiram:

1. Alguem brincou lá em Itaipu e disse: “o último que sair apaga a luz”. O estagiário acreditou…
2. Estão dizendo que o Google comprouItaipu. Agora energia elétrica, só com convite…
3. Apagão: Muito mais econômico que horário de verão!
4. A Madona nem liga pro apagão! Elá tá com Jesus Luz!
5. Segundo meus cálculos, as maternidades vão estar lotadas em Agosto de 2010!!

The cheeky dived in with non-stop jokes about Itaipu. So we decided to pause our programming to bring you the best 5 tweets about the blackout so far! Check them out:

1. Someone in Itaipu joked, “will the last one to leave please turn off the light!” The trainee believed it…
2. They are saying that Google has bought Itaipu. Now, electricity is by invitation only…
3. Blackout: much more economical than daylight saving time!
4. Madonna does not care about the blackout! She's with Jesus Luz! [Madonna's Brazilian boyfriend has the Portuguese word for light as his surname. The couple was in Rio on the night of the blackout]
5. According to my calculations, the hospital maternity wards will be packed in August 2010!

"Blackout! Twttered! From Objetos de Desejo blog.

Blackout t-shirts in two versions: "Blackout! I was there/Blackout! I Twittered!" From Objetos de Desejo blog.

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