BY Tom Campbell, Guest Columnist
We knew it was coming. We just didn’t know when or where. The Colonial Pipeline hacking was a scary introduction to ransom attacks.
Here are five take-aways:
1. Human nature hasn’t changed much. When the east coast pipeline was shut down for five days due to a cyberattack, our neighbors rushed to top off their tanks. We witnessed a panic mentality, even if people didn’t really need extra gallons of gas. Many of us still remember the Arab Oil Embargo of the ‘70s, when long lines and short tempers were in plentiful supply. Then, as with the Colonial shutdown, we wondered how long it would be before we could “fill’er up” again? Human nature hasn’t changed much in 50 years.
2. We are more vulnerable than we thought. How quickly we forgot last year’s pandemic when store shelves were empty of toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer. It doesn’t take a lot to disrupt supply lines, whether it is food, fuel or electricity. We have taken for granted that the grocer or retailer will have just what we want when we want it and have failed to take precautions for supply chain disruptions. This should be a wake-up call to North Carolina.
3. This won’t be the last disruption. Nobody should believe this was a one-off occurrence. The message sent to the devious minds who would disrupt, for either political or profit motives, was they could accomplish their goals and profit from them. Reports say that Colonial paid about $5 million to the ransomware attackers. They didn’t have much choice. The attackers gained much more than money; next time the disruption will be equally painful and the ransom even greater. We know who ends up paying for it in the end.
Unlike that Arab crisis there was no shortage of fuel. The problem resulted from the computer and information systems being overtaken. We’ve come a long way from when early computers occupied the entire basement of a building to where we hold more computing power in our hands than was available then. But just as we benefit from being able to have instant information at our fingertips so do those who would use this information for evil. Companies and individuals need to spend as much time and money securing their information from hackers as they do in improving their technology systems.
4. Bigger is not always better. Why is there only one pipeline along the entire east coast? Why only one natural gas pipeline? And why is there only one primary source of electricity in most of our state?
Time was every town had their own electrical power generation plant. We bought into the promise that consolidation would bring economies of scale and lower prices to the consumer and developed “regulated monopolies” for consumer protection. Regulated or not, they are still monopolies and the bigger they are, the more appealing they are for evildoers.
We say we believe in competition, but if you look at the record of the past half century, you see more consolidation in banks and financial institutions, hospitals, retailing, the news media, transportation and corporations. We would challenge you to show one industry where the public is better off. They have become so large we are told they are “too big to fail.” Maybe they are just too big. It is time to re-think the benefits of bigness.
5. Our Infrastructure badly needs improvement. It is a well-established fact that our public infrastructure in North Carolina and the U.S. is old, poorly maintained and inadequate. The Colonial Pipeline incident should be a poster child calling us to bring our infrastructure up to date, if for no other reason than to avoid or minimize future disruptions.
We don’t need more long lines, short tempers and higher prices because we failed to act.
Tom Campbell is a former assistant N.C. State Treasurer and was the creator/host of N.C. SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that aired on UNC-TV until 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.