Securing the Systems We Can’t Live Without

By David Browne, J.D., Program Chair of Security Studies 

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Secure Systems What’s the first thing you do when waking in the morning? Turn on the lights? Brush your teeth? Or maybe fire up your laptop to check the morning’s emails? Much of the activity we perform is tied to a web of interconnected systems that allow us to function throughout our day. But what happens when systems critical to our daily living stop working? An example is noticeable on the East Coast, where many of our fellow students and faculty recently dealt with the effects of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and hazardous winter conditions.

Recently, as the winds buffeted New York City, the National Strategy Forum, a non- profit research institute, sponsored a presentation to address just that. Ed Gleason, Great Lakes Regional Director for the Department of Homeland Security, discussed the identification and protection of critical infrastructure, defined as those systems whose failures affect the daily functioning of individuals, communities and our national economy. He points to water, transportation and electrical systems as most critical.

Water System

The availability of clean water is essential for our personal use, public safety and for the production of food and medicine. Gleason stressed the importance of uninterrupted flow of clean water to homes and hospitals, ensuring the health of people and the economy alike.

Transportation System

The Ambassador Bridge, which links Canada to the United States via the Detroit River, is the largest cross border link in the nation. This bridge plays a critical role in supplying the auto industry, which employs a system of just-in-time manufacturing inventories. This means that an interruption in transportation would halt production in a matter of hours and shut down a vital part of the nation’s economy.

Electrical System 

Gleason noted that our nation’s aging electrical system contains numerous redundancies that are fairly easy to employ when making repairs; however, if a transformer explodes, as happened in New York, a severe issue exists. The U.S. no longer manufactures the type of transformers our system’s grid currently runs on, and there are few spare parts available to fix them. Since working space is at a premium, many banks, businesses and hospitals store generators, servers and other vital electrical infrastructures, including backup systems in basements, where they can become damaged by salt (from receding sea water), rendering them damaged or non-functional.

Gleason directed attention to a Southern Illinois water plant, where a series of malfunctions caused a water turbine to turn on and off a number of times, resulting in equipment burning out. Investigation by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security determined that the malfunctions were the easy work of hackers controlling a public utility. Interruptions like these will cost our nation almost $200 billion by 2020, unless perhaps three times that amount is invested in updating and protecting these critical systems.

Whether investment or interruption occurs, however, our nation has resiliency. Proven time and again in the face of disasters, we’ve lost and rebuilt, and continued to innovate. Those who have understanding of the systems critical to our lives, and who have dogged interest in creating our lives for the better will ensure it.

David Browne, J.D., spent over 14 years as a Special Agent in the FBI and most recently as a Crime Analyst at the University of Chicago for six years. He earned a J.D. law degree from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Michigan. He is currently program chair of Security Studies at Colorado Technical University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Flickr / NapaneeGal