December 6, 2011 – Like the air that we breathe, we are not aware of the extent to which our lives depend on the critical infrastructure (CI) that surrounds us, operating quietly in the background. Much of that infrastructure is relatively fragile, extremely vulnerable, and poorly protected from those who might wish to cause harm to Canada and Canadians. Ice
storms, floods and rail and road blockades of recent years have underlined how even small disruptions in the services we rely on from CI can dramatically affect our lives for the worse.
In a new study published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Canada's Critical Infrastructure: When is Safe Enough Safe Enough?, author Andrew Graham stresses the need for a cohesive plan to protect Canada's vulnerable infrastructure before it is too late. Included in the list of such CI are vital systems most Canadians never think about: energy generation and distribution, financial institutions, our food supply system, information and communications technology and health care institutions. CI vulnerability, in other words, extends to every aspect of Canadians' lives.
What are the serious threats to Canada's CI? The author identifies a number, including natural disasters, terrorism, theft, hackers and vandals and simple neglect and underinvestment by infrastructure owners. Increasing integration of information technology into all forms of infrastructure mean that cyber threats, including cyber attacks by foreign governments and others, is adding a whole new layer of vulnerability. Professor Graham assesses current efforts to address those threats and suggests themes for moving forward and building on the work already done in government and the private sector.
"What is missing is a cohesive and sustainable approach to Canada's infrastructure. That approach should be led by the federal government, but must be accompanied by a healthy recognition that such leadership cannot carry the full responsibility for either identifying threats and risks, or doing something about them. That responsibility lies in many hands," said Professor Graham.
He outlines a number of key elements needed to ensure a more secure and sustainable approach to CI threats:
- A clear cataloguing of critical infrastructure in the country;
- A common understanding of the threats and risks that drive mitigation in both the public and private sector;
- Information needs to be more effectively shared and applied;
- Adequate reinvestment to avoid increasing its vulnerability through neglect;
- A need to develop an adequate response capacity suited to the task;
- Public awareness and education to define realistic risks ensure public engagement in the protection of structures vital to its interest and to contain alarmist or ill-informed fears and misunderstandings;
- Ways to provide incentives for the private sector to invest in CI protection; and
- Addressing the human dimension, in that systems can only work reliably when the personnel are equipped with the requisite skills, information, and tools to hold them together.
"Critical infrastructures sustain our way of life," said Professor Graham. "We expect to pick up the phone and have a dial tone, turn a switch and have power, have a ready supply of fuel for a natural gas furnace, to be able to move from one part of the country to another, to turn a faucet for safe drinking water, and to call 911 and receive immediate assistance," he added. "We expect a lot, and we get it most of the time, but what we ignore is the inherent fragility of the systems that deliver this way of life. When something goes wrong, it is too late to ask: are we safe enough?"
Andrew Graham is an adjunct professor at Queen's University's School of Policy Studies, where he teaches and writes on public sector management, financial management, integrated risk management and governance. He is author of Canada's Critical Infrastructure: When is Safe Enough Safe Enough?, released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute as part of the National Security Strategy for Canada series. In the next installment, solutions to Canada's critical infrastructure problems will be addressed.