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Infrastructure is critical to security—and we should be worried

by Sarah Kubrick on May 23, 2017 9:16:37 AM
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D+. That was America's grade on the latest infrastructure scorecard released by the ASCE. For many individuals that grade is disappointing but doesn't necessarily raise any alarm bells. But after years of a persistent D rating and almost zero improvements to our infrastructure in the United States, the negative impact is beginning to affect something that should raise alarm bells: our physical security.

A couple weeks ago we discussed the possible impacts of an attack on our water supply, and the issue made waves with organizations that have lamented the perceived lack of concern by the government for security at reservoirs and dams. Held to stringent quality standards but lacking the funds to prop them up, many utilities have growing concerns about how to mitigate such an attack. And after looking at the current state of our infrastructure as a whole, utilities aren't the only ones feeling pressure in their security departments. 

The critical infrastructure formed by our airports, highways, railways, bridges, transport hubs, hospitals, network communications, electric grids and power plants, water systems, seaports, and oil refineries have consistently scored poorly in the United States. A rating of a D+ places us in the "at risk" category of terrorism and contamination, making infrastructure security all the more important. While the overall grade has remained the same since 2013, there were some areas that improved such as wastewater treatment, railways, schools, ports, levees, inland waterways, and waste management. However, the individual grades remained the same or fell for solid waste management, our transit system, aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, roadways, and parks. Focusing on the areas lacking improvement, a security incident or attack on any one of them could prove to be an outright emergency that could place millions of people at risk. 

While TSA checkpoints in airports are critical to the safety of travelers, aviation security goes beyond scanning the passengers and crew of planes. Perimeter protection methods around many commercial airports were found to be lacking in strong forms of security. Perimeter fencing was adequate, however, many were bordered by trees or shrubs that obstructed surveillance and provided shelter for anyone seeking to gain unauthorized access. Lighting was also a concern. When surveyed, many commercial airports felt there was no need for perimeter lighting due to street lights around airports, and found the illumination around gates to be sufficient protection at night. Video surveillance, perimeter patrols, and intrusion detection were intermittent, with several commercial airports reducing perimeter security measures due to budget and opening the gap for unauthorized vehicles to cross the perimeter. And while commercial airports command more attention for strong security, the onus for safety should not be landing squarely on their shoulders. General aviation airports are not held to the same standards by the TSA, which only further drives the point that increased perimeter security is absolutely essential. Despite the fact that aircraft found at general aviation airports are typically smaller than commercial jets, they can still cause a tremendous amount of damage if someone happens to gain access and steal an airplane. If you think it sounds far fetched, just remember the 14-year old that stole a Cessna from an airport in Fort Payne, Alabama in 2005, or Turkish Canadian Adam Dylan Leon, who stole a Cessna 172 from a Canadian flight school and flew it into US airspace in the hopes of committing suicide by being shot down. He ended up crash landing in Missouri and being arrested, but could have caused a lot of grief had he decided to harm anyone else in the process.

Electrical grids are also an aspect of our critical infrastructure that have not improved over the years, leaving many concerned for both physical and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. While power grids around the world have long been worried about cyber attacks, this became a reality during 2015 when Russian hackers allegedly shut down a power grid in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine, followed by a similar attack on parts of Kiev during December 2016. The amount of chaos that ensued, and an alleged hacking into a power grid in Vermont by the same hackers, was a glimpse into what could happen in the United States if hackers chose to target us on a grander scale. Grocery stores would be closed, cell phone networks would stop functioning, internet would shut down, and hospitals would eventually cease to function as their generators ran out of fuel. If hackers strategically selected the right number of generators in the Northeast US, the strain on the remaining grid would cause secondary outages to ripple across the country, ceasing air traffic, rail traffic, fuel operations, waste removal, and water treatment. Not too long after, civil unrest would likely set in. And if you remain unconvinced of the damage that could occur, the nuclear disasters in Fukushima and Chernobyl should serve as sobering reminders of how catastrophic a physical attack on a nuclear power station could prove to be. Simply shutting down the power grid would be chaotic, but a physical attack on a nuclear facility would be a global disaster, leaving enormous swaths of land uninhabitable and spreading illness across multiple continents. There were allegedly plans to do just that by the same terrorists that carried out the 2016 bombing attacks in Brussels.

Certain areas have experienced a drop in their grade, including parks and transit. While many consider parks and recreational areas low on the list of critical infrastructure, it should be noted that damage caused to them could easily filter into other critical layers of infrastructure. A decrease in security and patrols in national parks could result in increased instances of pollution, fires, vandalism, and loss of wildlife, triggering an imbalance within delicate ecosystems and potentially affecting our food and water supplies. And vulnerabilities in transit systems such as railways and waterways could interrupt shipping interests and slow down (if not entirely stop) countless industries. 

As doom-filled as it may sound, shining the light on our infrastructure's weaknesses can only help us preemptively identify vulnerabilities and circumvent security breaches prior to them occurring. An attack on even one element of critical infrastructure is dangerous, and keeping them secure helps the entire system work seamlessly together. 

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This post was written by Sarah Kubrick

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