Critical infrastructure is a general term for physical and computer-based systems essential to the functions of the government and economy. Among these are telecommunications, energy, banking and finance, transportation, water systems, and emergency services. The expression critical infrastructure entered the language of policymakers in the mid-1990s, as it became increasingly apparent that the United States depended on a network of systems that collectively constituted its physical engine, and that these systems were potentially as vulnerable as they were valuable.
Components of critical infrastructure. Included under the heading of critical infrastructure are highways, airports and aircraft, trains and railways, bus lines, shipping and boat lines, transport, trucking systems, and supply networks for basic goods, electric power plants and lines, along with oil and gas lines and utilities of all kinds, including water and sewer systems, land and cell phone systems, computer networks, television, and radio (not only that which is publicly accessible, but that controlled by private or government entities in special networks or on special frequencies), banks and other financial institutions, and security, fire, hospital, and emergency services.
Each element of critical infrastructure is so vital that if it were removed from the equation, even temporarily, the entire nation would experience monumental repercussions. Even when the infrastructure of a particular area is threatened, the results can be disastrous. To this day, people alive at the time remember the northeastern electrical blackout of 1965, or the New York City blackout of 1977. Today, the critical systems that run the engine of America are far more interlinked than they were even in the 1970s, and this interdependence carries with it new vulnerabilities.
Responding to the challenge. Recognition of these vulnerabilities led to the creation of the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection and the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, as well as the integration of critical infrastructure elements of disparate departments and agencies at the federal level. It has also led to the creation of critical infrastructure protection offices by state and local governments, and by the U.S. private sector. In other parts of the industrialized world, such as Canada, concerns over critical infrastructure have led to the establishment of new departments and offices.
Protection of critical infrastructure in the United States became even more of an issue after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Though some of the measures taken have invoked the ire of civil libertarians who decry the loss of information access, and limitations on movement, faced by ordinary citizens, it is likely that the future will see even more stringent protections over the systems critical to the functioning of modern America.
█ FURTHER READING:
Cordesman, Anthony H., and Justin G. Cordesman. Cyber-Threats, Information Warfare, and Critical Infrastructure Protection: Defending the U.S. Homeland. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Critical Foundations: Protecting America's Infrastructures: The Report of the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1997.
Zukin, Sharon. Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Ingram, Gregory. "Roundtable Discussion: Critical Issues in Infrastructure in Developing Countries." Work Bank Research Observer (1993): 473.
Lukasik, S. J., J. T. Goldberg, and S. E. Goodman. "Protecting an Invaluable and Ever-Widening Infrastructure." Association for Computing Machinery 41, no. 6 (June 1998): 11–16.
Robinson, C. Paul, Joan B. Woodward, and Samuel G. Varnado. "Critical Infrastructure: Interlinked and Vulnerable." Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 1 (fall 1998): 61–67.
Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security. <http://www.pcis.org> (February 27, 2003).
Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (CIAO), United States