Protecting Critical Infrastructure From Cyberattack: Current Issues and Potential Solutions

Written by G. Andrew Ouellette, Class of 2022 

I. Introduction

On February 5, 2021, hackers gained unauthorized access to the control systems of a water treatment facility in Oldsmar, Florida.[1]  The Oldsmar facility, located about fifteen miles from Tampa, which hosted the Super Bowl the day before, provides water for businesses and over 15,000 residents.[2]  Once inside the computer system, the hackers were able to locate the software function controlling the levels of sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye, that is added to the water. They proceeded to raise the levels of sodium hydroxide by more than 110 times the standard level, a level that could potentially be fatal to humans if ingested.[3]  Luckily, this crisis was averted thanks to the watchful eye of a plant operator who was able to return the levels to normal before any of the changes could take effect.[4]

Though no casualties were suffered as a result of the Oldsmar attack, the incident highlights a significant and growing threat to national security, a threat that the United States is increasingly unprepared to defend against. This is just one example in a long string of cyberattacks on infrastructure in recent years. According to the FBI, cyberattacks resulted in over $3.5 billion in financial losses reported in 2019 alone,[5] and experts estimate that this could reach $10.5 trillion globally by the year 2025.[6]  Generally, when people think of cyberattacks, they think of data breaches and theft of personal information due to the numerous cases affecting high-profile companies in recent years.[7]  However, more serious cyber threats exist, namely cyberattacks that target our nation’s critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure (CI) is becoming an increasingly attractive target for terrorists and hackers due to both the strategic importance of CI and the “numerous vulnerabilities found within these assets and systems.”[8]  Experts have noted that “as industries become more digitally connected, we will continue to see more states and criminals target these sites for the impact they have on society.”[9]  A recent report distributed to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted that China, Iran, and Russia all have the ability to launch disruptive cyberattacks on the U.S.’s critical infrastructure, including gas pipelines and electrical grids.[10]  Additionally, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has warned that “Moscow is mapping our critical infrastructure with the long-term goal of being able to cause substantial damage.”[11]

While the concept of the federal government playing a significant role in protecting CI from attack is not a new one, the increasing interconnectivity of CI to the internet has brought a host of new challenges. Prior to the cyber-era, “the government’s role in protecting infrastructures was relatively justifiable and straightforward, as risks both originated and materialized in the kinetic realm.”[12]  However, risks have multiplied due to an increasing dependence on the internet, as well as the internet itself being classified as CI.[13]  The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased vulnerability with thousands of employees connecting to systems remotely, often with inadequate protection in place.

Rapid development, increasing complexity, and argument over the appropriate approach have led to a lag in policy addressing security regulations in the area. The United States, along with other countries, has so far been hesitant to impose strict regulations, instead opting for a “voluntary participation” based approach.[14] Not only have recent attacks and an increased reliance on remote connectivity laid bare the shortcomings of the current approach to protecting CI, but they have shown that it is time for the adoption of stricter regulation to protect against far more serious attacks.

This paper seeks to highlight some of the issues arising out of the current policy approach to protecting CI from cyberattack and propose recommendations in several key areas. Section II will begin by presenting an overview of relevant background information, including how critical infrastructure is categorized, the current landscape of the CI sectors, as well as current vulnerabilities to cyberattack. Next, Section III will briefly cover the policy history of CI protection in the United States with a focus on major developments to highlight how this policy has evolved as well as recent developments in this area. Section IV will explore the current policy approach as well as some of the significant benefits and drawbacks in key areas.

Section V will conclude by building on the topics discussed in the previous sections and present several proposals, including strengthening incentives for companies to build and maintain robust cybersecurity, furthering public-private information sharing, as well as creating a standardized federal cybersecurity requirement for CI sectors.

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