Dr. Jane LeClair By Dr. Jane LeClair • January 25, 2019

Why Our Critical Infrastructures Need Cybersecurity Protection Now More Than Ever Before

Imagine this: You wake up tomorrow morning without any electricity in your home. When you turn on the faucet for water to make your coffee, nothing comes out.

Concerned for answers, you pull out your smart phone — only to find that it didn’t charge overnight and the battery is dead. You then turn on your computer, hoping to connect to Wi-Fi and get some answers, but the wireless router won’t work. Now scared, you break out the portable radio and try to find out what is going on in the world – but there is nothing broadcasting. The radio is silent. 

These scenarios may seem apocalyptic, but if a series of cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure occur, fiction can quickly turn to reality.

While many sectors are critical for the smooth operation of our nation, some are more vital than others — primarily water and electricity. We need water to survive, but we need electricity to operate the pumps that supply that water. We need electricity for our communications, our medical and emergency facilities, our transportation and our communication and information facilities. Without power, we are not far removed from the Stone Age. 

Protecting that power, arguably the most vital of all the critical infrastructures, should, therefore, be a prime concern to us, and, for the most part, we have done a commendable job in protecting it. Yet, one path of intrusion, one threat vector, remains vulnerable — cybersecurity.

The Most Critical Sectors

Right now, the U.S. government has designated 16 sectors as ‘critical’ to our nation’s security and well-being. They are:

1. Chemical Sector

Deals with the manufacturing, storage, use and transport of potentially dangerous chemicals, which include agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

2. Commercial Facilities Sector

Consists of sites that attract large crowds of people for shopping, business, entertainment or lodging, for example, casinos, hotels, amusement parks, zoos, museums, stadiums, shopping malls and apartment buildings. 

3. Communications Sector

Involves the use of terrestrial, satellite and wireless transmission systems for the operation of all businesses, public safety organizations and government. The communications sector impacts the overall operations of the energy, information technology, financial services, emergency services and transportation systems sectors.

4. Critical Manufacturing Sector

Comprises such activities as mining, generator manufacturing, aerospace and parts manufacturing, and aluminum production and processing.

5. Dams Sector

Responsible for delivering and controlling water, including hydroelectric power generation, municipal and industrial water supplies, agricultural irrigation, flood control, industrial waste management and recreation, among others.

6. Defense Industrial Base Sector

Relates to the research, development, design, production, delivery and maintenance of our military weapons systems, subsystems and components that are essential to mobilize, deploy and sustain the nation’s military operations, both domestic and foreign.

7. Emergency Services Sector

Highly-skilled, trained personnel that use physical and cyber resources to save lives, protect property, help communities impacted by disasters and aid recovery efforts during emergencies, such as police and fire departments, 911 call centers and local public works departments.

8. Energy Sector

Virtually all other sectors rely on energy sources, like electricity, oil and natural gas, to function. Without electricity for households and businesses, fuel for transportation and natural gas for materials production, cooking and heating, the U.S. economy would be completely upset. 

9. Financial Sector

Includes investments both domestic and foreign, insurance companies, depository institutions, savings and credit products ranging from small, local institutions to global companies with billions of dollars in assets.

10. Food and Agriculture Sector

Entirely under private ownership, the Department of Homeland Security estimates 2.1 million farms, 935,000 restaurants and more than 200,000 registered food manufacturers, processing and storage facilities comprise nearly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity.

11. Government Facilities Sector

Responsible for a wide variety of federal, state, local and tribal government buildings, recreational activities and business activities like courthouses, embassies, national laboratories, military installations and offices. Many facilities contain sensitive information that protect critical assets.

12. Healthcare and Public Health Sector

Protects the economy from threatening situations such as terrorism, infectious disease outbreaks and natural disasters in both the public and private sectors.

13. Information Technology (IT) Sector

As businesses, governments, academia and private citizens become increasingly reliant on IT functions, the nation’s security, economy and public health and safety require preparation and protection for hardware and software systems.

14. Nuclear Reactors, Materials and Waste Sector

America’s civilian nuclear infrastructure includes everything from power reactors that provide electricity to medical isotopes that treat cancer patients.

15. Transportation Systems Sector

Includes the quick, safe and secure movement of people and goods through aviation, maritime transportation systems, mass transit and passenger rails, pipeline systems, freight rails, and postage and shipping.

16. Water and Wastewater Systems Sector

Responsible for safe drinking water and properly treated wastewater to prevent disease and protect the environment.               

In times past, the operation of these facilities was largely mechanical. But with passing decades, those facilities have become increasingly technical, reliant on computers, bundled software and the internet to operate more efficiently. In so doing, they have increased their vulnerability to cyberattacks by individuals, criminals and rogue nations. For example, our energy infrastructure is constantly being probed by those with malicious intent.

To meet this threat, the private organizations that operate most of these facilities, in cooperation with government agencies, have sought to strengthen their digital defenses. This comes in the form of increasingly sophisticated hardware and software to monitor for intrusion and with well-trained operators of those systems. Equipment is readily available, but skilled operators are in short supply. 

To meet that need, organizations are looking to well-educated and trained cyber professionals — but the need is great and rapidly increasing as these organizations must quickly ramp up their defenses.

The defense of our critical infrastructure should be a paramount concern for us all. Without adequate defenses and skilled personnel to staff those measures, the results could be apocalyptic should we suffer a national cyberattack. Skilled cybersecurity professionals are needed to prevent this from occurring.

Learn more about our cybersecurity programs and how you can gain the knowledge and skills needed to protect critical cyber infrastructure and information assets. 

Dr. Jane LeClair

Written by Dr. Jane LeClair

Dr. Jane LeClair is the president of the Washington Center for Cybersecurity Research and Development, and consults on cybersecurity programming at Thomas Edison State University. She has previously served as the Chief Operating Officer for the National Cybersecurity Institute. Dr. LeClair holds an MS in Cybersecurity and an EdD in Adult Education.

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