The recent issue of the Bonn Power Shift Update deals with critical infrastructure as a core element of national stability.
Resilient and secure critical infrastructure – those physical and information technology assets, networks and systems that are the backbone of a society – is increasingly turning into a political core issue. In recent years, its protection and supply has been under growing pressure due to a wide range of threats from man-made dangers to changing weather patterns due to climate change – particularly cyber attacks are turning into a continuous litmus test for the resilience of national infrastructure systems. The close relationship between the increasingly decisive aspect of cyber security and the protection of critical infrastructure, which by now is deeply interwoven with digital information structures, was made abundantly clear by the recent WannaCry cyber attack in May. Targeting hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries including Britain’s National Health Service, Germany’s largest railway company, and the Russian financial sector, the attack had a vast impact on critical infrastructure particularly in Europe and Russia, illustrating the vulnerability of national infrastructure systems and the massive consequences that result from sudden disruptions. The energy sector serves as another example for this: According to analyses, most industrialized countries’ energy systems constantly run at close to capacity and may not be able to effectively handle unexpected supply interruptions. In the case of an attack, this would have massive economic, social and environmental consequences.
In the US, which has been making some progress in key areas regarding its much-criticized infrastructure, the protection of critical infrastructure has been a national top priority since 2001. By global comparison, US American efforts to ward off attacks take a relatively progressive and integrative approach which pools various public entities and includes the private sector. Nevertheless, US critical infrastructure remains vulnerable in a number of ways: Aside from cyber security, exposure to natural hazards and volatile weather patterns is projected to be larger and more uncertain in the future, for instance, with no adequate measures to combat the threats resulting from it. In the EU, which is currently developing its strategic infrastructure development, protection measures are still rooted in the national level. While the EU Commission Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection (EPCIP) provides a common framework, the CEER considers the multitude of national and multilateral initiatives and frameworks to be fragmentary and overall still insufficient. Furthermore, while the vast majority of all critical infrastructures are in the hands or connected to private operators, state regulations of the private sector are still in the beginning stages. A new EU directive at least placed minimum standards for cyber-security on critical infrastructure operators. China follows a similar route: Not only does the People’s Republic lead the world in infrastructure investment, but it is also developing an increasingly complex protection strategy. As opposed to this, the situation is quite different across developing and emerging nations. With multi-billion investments in energy, communication and traffic networks, emerging nations particularly in Asia are experiencing a massive infrastructure upgrade which is projected to amount to a total of US$21.7 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next decade. At the same time, however, protection strategies and systems are still highly underdeveloped. Russia exhibits a similar lack of systematic protection measures. Simultaneously, a lack of infrastructure investment over the last two decades has led to an overall very low quality of Russian infrastructure.
While both the premises of and approaches to infrastructure protection vary significantly across regions and nations, the global community as a whole is still in the beginning stages: In a recent resolution, the UN urgently called on its member states to prioritize infrastructure protection in order to contain the massive threats that result from disruptions in each nations’ most critical systems.
Prof. Dr. Xuewu Gu
Center for Global Studies, University of Bonn