5 Challenges of Protecting Critical Infrastructure

Emergency response workers pile sandbags for critical infrastructure protection.

From bridges to roads, power plants to water systems, financial institutions to communications networks, a nation is supported by its infrastructure. What’s at risk if our nation’s vital infrastructure is threatened? The very safeguards citizens rely on are compromised: public health, safety, the ability to govern, public confidence and national security, to name only a few. In October 2018, a cyberattacker known as Sharpshooter tried to infiltrate defense, energy, financial and nuclear companies across the world—but primarily in the U.S. The attacker apparently intended to disrupt key infrastructure, from electrical grids to nuclear power plants, to debilitate the economies of the targeted countries. The urgent need to shield the nation’s key infrastructure from threats can’t be overstated. Professionals in homeland security play a critical role in addressing the risks to the physical and organizational structures our nation depends on to function.

Today, opportunities abound for professionals trained to strengthen the nation’s critical infrastructure protection programs and respond to potential threats. Those seeking to master the skills needed for these crucial tasks should consider pursuing Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Critical Infrastructure in the US

How can the nation ensure that our critical infrastructure remains secure and functioning? Presidential Policy Directive 21: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience sets out a comprehensive plan. The directive identifies the sectors of critical infrastructure—such as energy, transportation systems, water and wastewater systems, healthcare and public health, and emergency services—that need protection. For example, if a water treatment plant is debilitated, a community could not only lose access to clean drinking water but also be at risk for illness and disease.

The assets, systems and networks in these vital sectors support our nation’s ability to function. If they were damaged, it could cripple our security, health and economy. For example, a compromised chemical sector, because it produces and uses potentially hazardous chemicals, threatens the environment and health of citizens. A 2014 chemical spill in the Elk River demonstrates the impact such a breach could have on everyday life. After 10,000 gallons of an industrial chemical spilled into the river, 300,000 residents in West Virginia lost access to clean drinking water. Not only that, many residents experienced symptoms of chemical exposure. Each infrastructure sector provides critical services that, if compromised, present challenges to our nation’s safety and well-being.

Potential Threats to Critical Infrastructure

As an aspiring homeland security professional, you can prepare to help minimize risks to critical infrastructure and protect our nation’s vulnerable systems. Threats to critical infrastructure can emerge from five key areas.

  • Terrorism
    Terrorists threaten our infrastructure directly or via cyberattacks. A single well-planned terrorist attack targeting vulnerabilities in infrastructure can devastate communities. For example, 911 terrorists took advantage of weaknesses in airport security and federal aviation regulations to kill thousands of people, as well as impact first responders, financial institutions and government facilities.

    Professionals in homeland security develop preventive measures, so key actors can best respond to terrorist threats to infrastructure. Well-devised policies and practices can strengthen the security of critical sites, such as laboratories that host deadly pathogens, as well as improve risk management processes and intelligence sharing. For instance, after 911 the Federal Aviation Administration revamped security procedures and standards in response to its new understanding of potential threats, and the federal government established the Transportation Security Administration, an agency protecting our transportation systems.

  • Cyberattacks
    Cyberattacks on critical infrastructure go back as far as 1982 when the CIA created software it knew the Soviet government would steal; it hacked into a Soviet pipeline system and caused an explosion. Today, everything from hospitals to aviation systems to utilities rely on cyber systems, which means they’re all vulnerable to cyberattacks. For example, the systems that control industrial processes are typically controlled remotely. If hackers overwrote the firmware of devices of this type of industrial control system, they could potentially block remote commands and shut the system down. This happened to a Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. Commerce shut down, hospitals could not function and people’s lives ground to a halt.

    Professionals in homeland security develop plans to strengthen cybersecurity. Many infrastructure systems were built without security in mind and are easily infiltrated. Professionals in homeland security work to establish standards, practices and procedures that address that problem. This could involve installing powerful firewalls or updating older operating systems. In addition, they develop preparedness programs and contingency plans. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security cooperates with agencies from different infrastructure sectors to analyze cyberthreats and then effectively devise risk management strategies.

  • Natural Disasters
    Natural forces also have the power to wreak havoc on critical infrastructure. For instance, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, roads, drinking water system, small business sector and communications network and strained the health care system to the point of crisis. With electricity out for months, hospitals operating on insufficient generators couldn’t provide enough power to cover even the basics, resulting in numerous preventable deaths. Spoiled food supplies left people hungry. Contaminated water left them thirsty and at greater risk for diseases like dengue fever and hepatitis. Other types of natural disasters, including winter storms, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, could also damage critical infrastructure across the country.

    Professionals in homeland security prepare the nation for natural disasters. Working in organizations concerned with critical infrastructure protection, such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, they provide first responders with training in topics like shooter preparedness and bombing prevention and with resources for emergency communications. They also develop plans that make collaboration easier between government agencies and the private sector.

  • Fires
    Fires, whether human-caused or naturally occurring, can also endanger infrastructure. According to an article in the journal Science, the frequency of wildfires in the West has increased 400% since 1980. Wildfires in places like California and Colorado have scorched homes, businesses, communications networks, roads and power lines in their path.

    Professionals in homeland security participate in the risk management process, identifying high- risk areas and considering how a wildfire could affect them. They work to develop awareness about wildfire issues and emergency response plans. Security measures start with fire prevention measures. For example, investigators of the wildfires in California found that the aging equipment of PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric), a utility company, caused 17 of the wildfires that devastated huge swaths of the state. Ensuring proper maintenance and replacing old power lines can help prevent future disasters. Appropriate planning plays an important role in managing fire threats.

  • Hazardous Materials
    Hazardous materials fuel cars, heat and cool houses, and facilitate manufacturing. But as their name implies, they can also be explosive, flammable, radioactive, corrosive or poisonous. Industries transport 3 billion tons of hazardous materials by ships, planes, trucks and trains. If mismanaged, these materials threaten the industries using them, transportation infrastructure and the environment. Hazardous materials pass through densely populated areas, posing a risk of accident. In addition, if these materials landed in the hands of terrorists, they could become weapons used to poison communities.

    Professionals in homeland security work to ensure the safe packaging and handling of hazardous materials during transportation. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires shippers to have security plans in place, and it coordinates with companies to help them strengthen their security plans. The agency also conducts vulnerability assessments of the materials and informs law enforcement agencies and companies of the risks.

Prepare for a Career in Homeland Security

Ensuring critical infrastructure protection requires a concerted focus on preparedness and response and recovery at the federal, state and local levels. Professionals in homeland security must have the right expertise to lead and support first responders in safeguarding communities. VCU’s Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness online degree program prepares graduates to meet the challenge of protecting the nation from a myriad of threats.

Through an interdisciplinary curriculum, the program develops a holistic understanding of threats to critical infrastructure, public safety, cybersecurity and public health. Courses train students in complex analysis of emergency management. In addition, students study analytical techniques to assess and manage risk and strategic policies to address counterterrorism. The curriculum also addresses the challenges the private and public sectors face in preparedness and strategic issues related to cybersecurity. The knowledge and skills acquired through the program prepare graduates to tackle threats to critical infrastructure and protect our nation from harm.

Learn more about VCU’s Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness online degree program and take the next step toward a rewarding career in homeland security.

AlgoSec, “Safeguarding Critical Infrastructure Against Cyber Attack”

AOPA, General Aviation Security: What’s Changed Since 911

EveryCRSReport.com, “Hazardous Materials Transportation Security: Highway and Rail Modes”

Forbes, “Cyber Sights on Critical Infrastructure”

Homeland Security Today, America’s Experts on the Biggest Threats and Challenges Facing Us in 2019

IRMI, “The Growing Threat of Cyber-Attacks on Critical Infrastructure”

Issues in Science and Technology, “The Challenge of Protecting Critical Infrastructure”

McAfee, “‘Operation Sharpshooter’ Targets Global Defense, Critical Infrastructure”

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Critical Infrastructure Sectors

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Fact Sheet: Executive Order on Cybersecurity / Presidential Policy Directive on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Infrastructure Security

U.S. Department of Transportation, “DOT’s Ongoing Efforts to Improve the Safe and Secure Transportation of Hazardous Materials”

Science, “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity”

The Balance, “Wildfire Facts, Their Damage, and Effect on the Economy”

The NewYork Times, “Owners of Chemical Firm Charged in Elk River Spill in West Virginia”

Virginia Commonwealth University, Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Online

Vox, “Hurricane Maria: 4 Ways the Storm Changed Puerto Rico — and the Rest of America”

WBDG, Natural Hazards Mitigation

Wired, “Soviets Burned by CIA Hackers?