So far in this series, we’ve discussed the changing face of critical infrastructure and the communications systems that support it. Now, let’s explore some of the security challenges we see for infrastructure, and how they may affect critical infrastructure during these changing times. First, let’s establish what critical infrastructure is, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security:
Critical infrastructure is the backbone of our nation’s economy, security and health. We know it as the power we use in our homes, the water we drink, the transportation that moves us, and the communication systems we rely on to stay in touch with friends and family.
Critical infrastructure are the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.
There are elements in the world working to disrupt the systems we depend on. Anyone who has been directly engaged in restoration efforts following a disaster can share firsthand the impact on the quality of life, but also how these events pose ongoing threats to life and property. As a major component of improving cost-effectiveness and reliability of power delivery, utilities are working to improve physical and cyber-security standards. These measures are designed to detect potential threats against the electric grid and protect it from those threats.
As industry professionals, engineering firms and manufacturers design and implement the next generation of protection systems, they acknowledge existing legacy infrastructure has to be supported and upgraded throughout the process. Along with rapid changes in technology, critical infrastructure expectations and requirements are evolving to improve cost-effective, reliable broadband connectivity. But along with those advancements, we also see new challenges that require us to address weather, maintenance and manmade threats to system reliability.
Reinventing the grid
As part of the critical infrastructure industry, electric utilities are working to protect the nation’s power grid to ensure the delivery of quality electrical service. The power grid is an integrated distributed network of independent systems that includes generation, transmission, distribution, protection and control systems. This means a wide variety of threats to these systems, from structural, facility, and hardware and software failures, to severe weather events and manmade attacks.
Operation and restoration preparedness
When the lights go out, multiple teams are ready to respond to help with restoration efforts, and to coordinate assistance from non-local responders when necessary. A wide range of laws, regulations, best practices and agreements are in place to ensure smooth day-to-day operations, in addition to systems and processes to detect and respond to disasters.
Electricity is such part of our daily lives that it is hard for us to comprehend the impact unless we experience an outage first-hand. But public safety agencies realize that threats to life and property increase when the power is off. That is one reason why the first responder community works closely with electric utilities following a disaster.
What does it all mean?
Until recent years, our power grid was implemented and operated with protection systems designed to detect outages due to needed maintenance and weather. As the world has changed, these systems are expanding to detect local physical threats as well as cyber threats that could originate from anywhere.
Using technology to integrate these distributed systems can significantly improve the reliability and security of the electric grid. The key is the proper management of that integration. Our ability as an industry to adapt the power grid to detect and report physical and cyber threats is key to preventing major power outages.
In part four of this series, Reinventing Critical Infrastructure, I’ll go over how we can leverage technology to reduce system upgrade costs.