On Friday, hackers breached the IT system of a company few people use or have even heard of, encrypted and locked its internal systems, and demanded a ransom to unlock it. This type of ransomware attack happens every day all over the world to companies big and small. It is, by now, a common occurrence in hospitals, schools, non-profits, and infrastructure companies of all sorts. But the attack on Friday made international news because it threatened the one thing Americans care most about: gas prices.
As a result of the attacks, Colonial Pipeline shut down its system as a precaution, halting the flow of roughly 45 percent of the east coast's gasoline and diesel fuel. On Sunday, the Department of Transportation temporarily waived safety rules for truck drivers so they can work longer hours moving fuel the pipeline can't (raising the question of how necessary the safety rules really are or how much Americans are willing to risk their own safety to maintain the flow of precious, precious gasoline). Still, experts warn that if the pipeline doesn't come back online in the next day or two, fuel prices will rise, although oil price futures are already spiking. And if the shutdown extends even longer, the Wall Street Journal warns "shortages could begin to affect retail stations and consumers along the East Coast."
Even the alleged hackers behind the ransomware attack appear to be taken aback from the fallout, saying "Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society."
Nothing freaks Americans out like the prospect of waiting in line to get gas except waiting in line to get gas that costs more money. For older Americans in particular, it harkens back to the unpleasant days of the oil embargo and symbolizes an era where the economy made no sense, politicians had no clue what to do, and nobody knew if things would ever get any better. The mere utterance of the phrase "gas shortage" is enough to send some Americans into a frenzy.
Obviously, gasoline is incredibly important to life in the United States. We depend on gasoline to go to work, the grocery store, school, visit friends, or go for a walk in the park. This dependency has bred a kind of false price-consciousness, where many people shop around for the cheapest gas station even though we have increasingly gravitated towards larger, less efficient vehicles for decades, resulting in one of the great parades of American anachronisms: driving a gas-guzzling SUVs extra miles to go to a gas station where fuel is a few cents cheaper per gallon.
Some spur lines of the pipeline have already resumed service. But whether the main line starts flowing again within a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, this particular ransomware hack is likely to spur the most aggressive federal and private response than any similar hack to date. Not because it is especially novel or dangerous, but because it has crossed the line. It might raise gas prices a few cents.