Obama Will Propose New Efforts to Make Our Creaky Physically Dangerous Critical Infrastructure CyberSafe

One of Obama’s key proposals in tonight’s State of the Union will be yet another effort to shore up the cybersecurity of our critical infrastructure.

As a threshold matter, I find it a remarkable coinkydink that the WaPo just reported the leaked findings of an NIE saying that the Chinese (and Israelis and Russians and the French, but the Chinese are bigger and badder, apparently) continue to rob us blind via cybertheft. I look forward to learning whether this — unlike the convenient drone rule book leaks supporting John Brennan’s confirmation — get reported as sanctioned leaks, as required under the Intelligence Authorization.

And speaking of John Brennan, he’s the Homeland Security Czar. A big part of his job is keeping us safe from precisely these kinds of attacks. So why didn’t he get a single question about why he should be CIA Director considering he has been such an abject failure keeping us safe from cyberattacks? (He was asked a question about CIA’s role in cybersecurity, but not asked to explain why he has been such a failure in his current role.)

Now, frankly, I don’t know that that is much John Brennan’s fault. Folks will say that the problem is — as it has been since Richard Clarke first started fearmongering on this front — that corporations won’t participate willingly and no one is going to make them.

But the proposal — which you’ll see if you tune in — doesn’t change that. It’s still voluntary.

And here’s the thing that all the cyberexperts in the world seem to be missing. Not only are the private owners of our critical infrastructure unwilling to fix their cyberdefenses. They’re not willing to keep their brick and mortar infrastructure up to date either. See, for example, PG&E or ConEd‘s recent records, for example.

Look, if these companies refuse to keep up their physical infrastructure and their cyber infrastructure, there’s probably an underlying reason motivating their negligence that no amount of immunity or winks or risk-free information sharing on the cyber side is going to fix. Moreover, if they are physically fundamentally unsafe, no amount of tinkering with their cybersecurity is going to make them safe. They’ll be vulnerable to a terrorist attack and be vulnerable to not entirely random failures and explosions.

You need to solve the underlying problem if you want to keep our critical infrastructure safe. And yet another EO, particularly one limited to cybersecurity and not affect brick and mortar integrity, will not do that.

Updated: Reading Obama’s longer proposal, it does aim to increase the “resiliency” of our physical infrastructure too. So it is not limited to cyber. That said, the underlying problem remains. Private companies aren’t spending the money to invest in this, whether it is physical resilience (or bare minimum functionality) or cyberdefense.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Profits are really high on the list of things they have to keep up. The other problem is that (if I understand correctly) electricity distribution is more profitable than gas distribution, so a company that does both is likely to put more time and money into the electric side of their corporate house. (Gas runs to more money because it’s underground.)

    Some of the gas people I know expect NTSB and FERC to mandate splitting those companies that try to do both – they don’t have to have different corporate headquarters, but separate management below that, separate budgets, that kind of thing.

  2. Morris Minor says:

    Very simple: cost. Resiliency requires variation and redundancy. If you want part of your infra to keep going after other parts get hit, the different parts need systemic differences and loose coupling.

    And another: profit. US power grids are tightly coupled. There is no technical reason for tight coupling, and it contributes to large-scale instability. And, nobody makes money for maintaining and fool-proofing the coupling infrastructure. But, it allows for power trading.

    IT-based efficiency allows endless squeezing another 1% out of capex and maintainence costs. Each squeeze increases homogeneity and system-wide instability. When the dominoes are all the same size and spacing, it is easier for them all to fall over at once.

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