“We usually say ‘attack’ so you can see what would happen,” he said. “My emphasis is on how you can protect this. My goal is to find a solution to make the network safer and better protected.” And independent American scientists who read his paper said it was true: Mr. Wang’s work was a conventional technical exercise that in no way could be used to take down a power grid.
The difference between Mr. Wang’s explanation and Mr. Wortzel’s conclusion is of more than academic interest. It shows that in an atmosphere already charged with hostility between the United States and China over cybersecurity issues, including large-scale attacks on computer networks, even a misunderstanding has the potential to escalate tension and set off an overreaction.
“Already people are interpreting this as demonstrating some kind of interest that China would have in disrupting the U.S. power grid,” said Nart Villeneuve, a researcher with the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based cybersecurity research and consulting group. “Once you start interpreting every move that a country makes as hostile, it builds paranoia into the system.”