If you want to scare a cyber-lay person, have them watch Bruce Willis chase virtual terrorists in “Live Free or Die Hard” and tell them it is all possible. In the film, the entire digital infrastructure of our country is brought to a stand still by a small group of very talented hackers. OK, professional analysts have told me it could not happen today. It could, however, happen in the not too distant future, particularly if present trends continue. The keys to that scenario are SCADA systems.

SCADA stands for System Control and Data Acquisition. These are really one type of Industrial Control System; however, SCADA has become the most common way to refer to them all. The simplest definition for SCADA is a computer system that monitors and controls a process, be it industrial, infrastructure or facility. Originally, they were all autonomous and monolithic; every one stood alone and was pretty much unique. The present second generations are distributed, and the third generations are networked.  These systems make nearly everything we depend on run correctly; without them our lives would be quite different.

Many people think these systems are protected because most are not connected to the Internet. This is a mistake. A noted scientist from one of our national laboratories recently said that despite the fact that only 10 percent of SCADA systems are attached to the Internet, they are under constant attack. As an example, attacks on our water systems have gone up 300 percent and on the electric grids, 30 percent. The situation is similar with most of our critical infrastructure sectors.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes the importance of these assets.  They have put together a special Industrial Control System CERT that not only deals with attacks, but does fly away responses and special training/red teams. This development is a welcome improvement, and DHS should be commended for it.

Unfortunately, two trends are making things worse. As noted, the newest systems are networked. Additionally, they are becoming more standardized. This is understandable, because they make the systems they serve more efficient and cost effective.  Unfortunately, they also make them more vulnerable to cyber attack.

We need to continue the efforts to defend our SCADA systems. If they are under assault when only 10 percent are Internet connected, what will happen when they are all online? DHS has made a great start, and industry is finally “getting it.” One only hopes the positive trends can catch up with the economic ones, which are driving the vulnerabilities. The bad guys know SCADA’s importance. We need to give it even more effort.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More