U.S. must redefine critical infrastructure for the digital era
America’s definition of infrastructure has remained largely unchanged since the New Deal, when the federal government updated roads, railways, and water supplies ahead of World War II. Back then, communications technologies were in their infant stage — radio broadcasting was the FCC’s sole focus — but over the past 25 years, digital communications have evolved at a rapid pace and become the foundation of daily American life. Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed major weaknesses in our modern communications infrastructure, including issues the country must address before another disaster strikes.
Despite multiple revolutionary technological advances, the US government’s understanding of critical infrastructure hasn’t evolved past the 20th century, leaving many modern communications assets vulnerable to cybercriminals. The US currently defines 16 critical infrastructure sectors as integral to the economy, notably including “communications” and “information technology” as separate sectors, an approach steeped in an outdated understanding of today’s digital infrastructure. In the former category, the US seeks to protect “terrestrial, satellite and wireless transmission systems,” while the latter focuses generally on “the internet.”
In the 21st century, and particularly during a time when national security is now continually threatened by foreign and domestic actors, cybersecurity demands a holistic rather than siloed understanding of digital communications. Today’s threat actors rarely target satellite dishes, cable lines, or cell towers for devastating attacks; they also don’t attempt to turn off the entire Internet. Instead, they lock down hospitals and water treatment facilities, force companies or cloud services offline, and ransom future product designs stolen from manufacturers’ servers.
For instance, the FBI’s alarming arrest of a Texas man for allegedly planning a mass bombing of Amazon Web Services (AWS) data centers. Though privately owned data centers might not be traditional “infrastructure,” an AWS outage can take down huge chunks of the internet, resulting in multimillion-dollar losses in a world where e-commerce reigns supreme.
Now, think about the economic and political impacts of just one social media platform: Twitter. Last year, a teenager used vishing techniques to simultaneously co-opt high-profile Twitter accounts for a Bitcoin scam — a huge, brazen hack that could have had much worse consequences. Before that, a hacker used Associated Press’s Twitter account to falsely claim that the White House had been attacked, causing the stock market to panic and plummet. Like AWS, Twitter doesn’t fall under the traditional definition of “infrastructure,” but between these sorts of attacks and Twitter’s growing role in political communications, it certainly has outsized importance to the US economy.
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