What Is Critical Infrastructure Security and Why Is It Necessary?

In the modern day, there are dozens or possibly even hundreds of different interconnected assets, networks, and systems that we rely on every day for the normal functioning of society. Without these various infrastructure components, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the benefits of living in the 21st century – small-scale disruptions to these components would result in the temporary loss of crucial capabilities. 

But, if escalated to a larger scale, society would be plunged into a catastrophic black sky event, resulting in cascading failures and a serious threat to societal continuity. Examples include conflicts between nations where an aggressor seeks to disable their opponent’s ability to communicate or mobilize. And what better way for a domestic or international terrorist group to sow confusion and fear than to prevent our critical infrastructure from functioning and, in turn, our successful ability to respond and recover? 

In other words, it is fundamental to the safety and prosperity of a nation to provide reliable critical infrastructure security. 

Critical Infrastructure Security Definition

Electric Grid

Critical infrastructure security involves identifying, prioritizing, and then providing plans to protect both physical and electronic infrastructures instrumental in the proper functioning of society. By using physical security and cybersecurity, critical infrastructure security ensures that a country’s government and financial markets can continue functioning unimpeded or with minimal disruption in the wake of either an intentional attack or a natural disaster.

The different infrastructure sectors that fall under critical infrastructure security are varied. However, when regarded together, these sectors make up the majority of any society’s ability to function – and the disruption of even one of these infrastructure sectors can have disastrous results for those living within that society. They typically include defense and national security, banking and finance, transportation and supply chains, communications, and healthcare, to name but a few.

What Can Disrupt or Disable Critical Infrastructure?

Any number of events might result in one or several critical infrastructure sectors being temporarily disrupted or indefinitely disabled. It is the job of critical infrastructure security to prevent such happenings. A handful of these events include:

  • Terror attacks: Any terror attack, no matter who it is perpetrated by, has but one goal: to disrupt the targeted society. Terror threats need little elaboration, considering how, in the United States, there are all too many examples of how large-scale attacks can tear at the fabric of our society. The destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 is a prime example, as it disrupted the infrastructure of downtown Manhattan until rebuilding efforts could be undertaken.
  • Geopolitical action: Conflicts on a geopolitical stage are one of the most common sources of infrastructure disruption. Invading forces seek to destabilize their opponents by interrupting public utilities, limiting access to transportation networks, and disabling their opponent’s telecommunications. An unfortunate example of this is the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with the former attempting to employ many of these tactics to aid its invasion.
  • Health pandemics: A worldwide pandemic, or even one confined to a smaller area such as a country or continent, disrupts modern society in several ways. Illness reduces the ability of individuals within that society from conducting everyday tasks such as working, and this inability to work regularly can interrupt supply chains. Healthcare providers are also often overwhelmed with the influx of sick patients. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of the power of a health pandemic.
  • Natural disasters: Most natural disasters are, thankfully, localized. A seismic event, for example, has enough destructive power to topple cities. Entire neighborhoods might be flattened by a tornado or inundated by a flood. However, there are some natural disasters that represent more far-reaching dangers, such as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a strong solar flare or coronal mass ejection. The danger of artificial EMPs also exists, an unfortunate reality that must be addressed for critical infrastructure security to be effective.

How Critical Infrastructure Security Safeguards Against These Threats

Global Infrastructures

Identifying and categorizing any threats a society faces when it comes to the continued operation of its critical infrastructure is simply the first step in providing infrastructure security. It is also necessary to design strategies to deter these threats. Many of these deterrence and prevention methods are already widely in use. The US Department of Homeland Security, for instance, is explicitly tasked with preventing terror attacks on US soil. Likewise, the Department of Defense and the US armed forces are in the business of deterring disruptions on a geopolitical scale using cybersecurity countermeasures.

These critical infrastructure security methods are also strongly demonstrated by the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Actions taken by the federal government to institute lockdowns, mandate the wearing of masks, provide crucial healthcare resources to hospitals, and facilitate the development and rollout of coronavirus vaccines have all been undertaken to keep society functioning. A natural disaster, like a pandemic, is less about prevention; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is tasked with providing temporary infrastructure elements to locations where a natural disaster has disrupted them.

However, there is one modern threat to critical security infrastructure that, while yet to occur, is indeed a possibility that must be considered. Unfortunately, it is also the one threat that has the most potential to have long-term infrastructure disruption as a consequence. EMPs, both those that are artificially induced or naturally occurring, can be absolutely devastating on a larger scale – and it is crucial that world governments develop countermeasures to such effects.

What Is an EMP?

An EMP does what it says on the tin: it is a sudden, short-lived pulse of electromagnetic radiation from an outside source. Most EMPs originate from the Sun, as a solar flare or coronal mass ejection. This type of geomagnetic disturbance results in electromagnetic radiation sweeping through the solar system. When some of this radiation reaches the Earth, they interact with our planet’s own magnetic field. Small, localized, or relatively weak EMPs often scatter in the furthest reaches of our atmosphere and can temporarily disrupt the ability to send and receive radio communications. However, stronger pulses can reach the ground and interfere with critical infrastructure such as our electric grid.

This is the danger that an EMP attack represents. An EMP is potentially disruptive due to the simple and unavoidable fact that modern society relies on electronics. Nearly everything, from our utility and telecommunications grids to our personal vehicles, depends on electronic control. An EMP has the ability to temporarily disable or even destroy unshielded electrical components. On a small scale, such as across a few city blocks, this would be extremely inconvenient, to say the least. On a larger scale, such as an entire geographical region or even an entire country, the results would be disastrous.

The Danger of Artificial EMPs

Infrastructure Security

Protecting infrastructure from naturally occurring EMPs is quite literally a science. Thanks to advances in astronomy, it’s become easier to predict solar flare cycles or detect coronal mass ejections as they’re happening. This provides enough of an early warning to deactivate any critical electronic systems during an EMP to prevent damage. However, EMPs can also be created artificially, and while there’s always the potential for a natural EMP to catch us unawares, these artificial EMPs are perhaps the bigger danger.

The detonation of a nuclear warhead, along with causing massive amounts of destruction, also generates an electromagnetic pulse due to the rapid release of radiation from the nuclear reaction. A high-atmosphere detonation increases the affected area of this artificial EMP by several orders of magnitude. A carefully planned high atmospheric detonation could potentially affect much of a continent, disrupting and disabling a wide range of crucial electronic infrastructure.

Preventing EMP-Related Damage

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent an EMP from damaging critical infrastructure is to prevent such an event from even happening in the first place. Carefully monitoring geopolitical conditions on a wide scale to defuse and deter such possibilities is the concern of governments worldwide. The United States, as are many Western countries, agree that both rogue nations and terror actors must not be permitted to use such tactics to create chaos that they can then exploit to their own ends.

Yet prevention is just one side of the coin. World governments are also heavily invested in the research and development of ways to protect infrastructure in the event of an unavoidable EMP, often through the use of an EMP shield. The critical infrastructure security sector is fully invested as well. Thankfully, there are technologies in existence that can help with this goal, but they are not necessarily ideal ones for large-scale protection – the use of a Faraday cage as an EMP shield can protect whatever is within that cage, but scaling such a solution up is often impractical.

More modern approaches include the development of large capacitor banks that could absorb EMPs that interact with electrical grids, preventing them from being damaged or disabled. Special dampeners and more efficient flywheels are also two possibilities that can help protect critical infrastructure points.

Preparing for the Future with Infrastructure Security

The chances of a debilitating EMP creating widespread chaos might be low, but they are never going to be zero. It’s the task of critical infrastructure security to ensure society has designed and implemented ways to minimize the impact of such an event – and that’s where we come in! 

It’s our mission at EIS Council to bring together the people who can secure our global infrastructures and the future of society. Want to do your part? Reach out to us today to learn more. 

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