Colonial Pipeline Hack Shows National Security is Sacrificed for Profit
Under the dubious pretense of technological advancement, the national defense is compromised for the sake of cutting corners and laying off skilled labor
Organized criminals from Russia infiltrated the Colonial Pipeline, one of the most important arteries of the national energy infrastructure. Once their agents were covertly in place, they executed the heist of a lifetime. They commandeered the pipeline, spanning thousands of miles across the East Coast, and demanded a ransom for its safe return. Failure to pay the demanded millions to an untraceable off-shore bank account would leave the criminals no choice but to render the grid permanently disabled. The entire regional economy was in the balance – even a potential environmental calamity with the capacity to kill millions, and to poison ecosystems across multiple states for generations, as the pipeline malfunctioned out of control.
This was not the plot of a Bruce Willis movie. There were no mullet-wearing terrorists patrolling with automatic rifles. No hidden bombs. John McClane was not hiding in an elevator shaft ready to pounce. But it did actually happen – and the gangsters were paid their ransom. The fuel distribution is still not operating at capacity, but for today at least, the day is saved. Until the next gang waltzes in and does it again. Which is likely, if not inevitable. It happens every day.
These ransomers do not make their demands with guns – or any type of traditional violence – they do not take hostages or kidnap the wives of maladjusted cops. The internet has rendered the plot lines of an entire generation of 80s and 90s action movies obsolete. The Colonial Pipeline was commandeered by actors operating safely on the opposite side of the globe. Even if Wesley Snipes was at the scene with a penchant for violence, the bad guys were never in harms way. They were always going to get paid – or the Colonial Pipeline and its dependents would have suffered dearly. There was never a chance of rescue, not by any lone hero, not by any SWAT team, not even the combined efforts of the entire United States military could have saved the day.
It didn’t use to be that way though. Back in the day, if the Russian mafia wanted to seize control of the fuel distribution network of the entire East Coast, it would have required hundreds of mercenary thugs, with enough guns and bullets to conquer a nation. It would have incurred mass casualties, on both sides. And it would have been practically guaranteed to fail – just like the final 15 minutes of every reputable film of the exact same plot. That might be the reason why ransoms on this scale have never happened – until now.
What makes evil plots like these likely today is the simple fact that the internet has found its way into every corner of society, including its vital infrastructure. And it mostly happened without a serious consideration of the consequences. Bedazzled by the apparent magic of computers, generations of starry-eyed budget officers have dismantled the national defense by inventing a new frontier – “cyber” they call it. We’re assured that this is better, but the only measure proving this is supposed “efficiency” – bureaucratic-speak for “it costs less.” But cheaper has rarely translated to better throughout most of history. And the miracles afforded by the computer revolution are no exception.
For sure, there is a place for the internet in society. But that doesn’t mean it belongs everywhere. It might be a great way to share cat photos, but it has no business as the backbone underpinning every other infrastructure in the nation. The Colonial Pipeline is just the latest example of where the internet doesn’t belong. A brief survey of the past three years brings up many more. The internet doesn’t belong in the water supply. The internet doesn’t belong in the electric grid. The internet doesn’t belong in elections. The internet doesn’t belong in police departments. Or hospitals.
This is not to say the internet isn’t a marvelous thing, but to quote the famous axiom of superheroes who saved the day from fictional evil plots: “with great power comes great responsibility.” If, for instance, you are responsible for the safety of the water supply – liable for the potential poisoning of millions – perhaps the perceived need for the internet should be weighed against the real threats that necessarily come with it. Water treatment predates the internet. The internet has not enabled water purification in any unique way. But what the internet has done is make water supplies more easy to poison by outside actors – another trite movie villain plot made more probable in the name of claimed technological advancement. Imagine what the internet has accomplished for nuclear power.
Why does the internet keep finding its way in vital systems, even at the expense of the national defense? It’s not ignorance. The computer’s ability to perform arithmetic at the speed of electrons is not its only miracle – not even its most impressive miracle. Where the computer has really captured the imaginations of executive budget makers is its ability to eliminate human labor, and thus maximize profit. When the Colonial Pipeline was commandeered by a foreign gang, it was not because of criminal genius, but because the pipeline operators saw a budgetary opening to reduce labor costs. They did not even take the minimal technical precautions required to operate their oil grid safely. Was the digitization of this critical national infrastructure a laudable technological achievement? Or was it just the state-of-the-art in cutting corners and laying off skilled workers? Was there any benefit to society from connecting the pipeline to the internet? Or was the only motive to increase oil profit? Is the disenfranchisement of labor worth the widespread risk of catastrophe?
The fact that this continues to happen demonstrates how insatiable the hunger to reduce human labor is to profiteers, even when society itself is at stake. If there were mechanical devices that could do it better than the computer does, the internet would not exist – maybe in its early form when its primary users were hobbyists, but it would not occupy the ubiquitously intrusive corporate function that it does today. This mass migration to the internet has not happened because the danger to society is unknown, but because the custodians of this society are more driven by short-term profit than any duty to mankind.
Until such a day when internet connectivity is prohibited or disincentivized for critical infrastructure, there is no end to these hacks in sight, and they will inevitably escalate to more and more disastrous results. The Colonial Pipeline hack should be a wake-up call, but it probably won’t be. What will it take for society to re-assess it’s dependence on the global computer network? We can only hope that the answer to this question doesn’t come at the price of mass loss of human life. Or defeat in war.
John Bolger is a software developer and systems administrator.
Top Photo: A segment of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Photo by John Bolger.