Earlier this month, hackers collected $4.4 million in ransom after pulling off a cyber-attack that forced the temporary shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline. The shutdown was no small matter. The pipeline delivers about 45% of the gasoline consumed on the East Coast, according to The Associated Press.
Not surprisingly, we witnessed panic-buying and shortages. While the halt in supply lasted only a matter of days, the fact that the cyber attackers received a ransom suggests that others with nefarious purposes will make similar attempts to extort pipeline owners for a quick buck. And it’s unlikely they’ll stop there. Similar ransom attacks could threaten other critical infrastructure. America has built the world’s greatest standard of living, but we must always protect it unless we want a life without it.
The attack took place far from Wyoming, but our state would be wise to pay close attention to what happened. As one of the nation’s large energy producers, we are home to plenty of appetizing targets for would be cyber attackers. For example, many Wyomingites would be hard pressed to find Opal on the map, but the tiny, western Wyoming enclave is the site of a major natural gas hub. Multiple pipelines converge on a refining plant there, which processes the fuel. An attack on one of those pipelines could wreak havoc on the natural gas market.
Wyoming is also the nation’s largest coal producer. Even as production diminishes, our coal continues to fuel power plants in many states. A network of train lines snake across Wyoming, bringing the coal to market. What would happen if somehow that network was disrupted, especially during a time of year when power is in high demand?
Our critical infrastructure isn’t limited to that which serves the energy industry. Wyoming is home to a network of dams and reservoirs that protects us from flooding and store water for rancher and farmers in multiple states. Presumably, those dams are run with computers, and if the system was compromised, who knows what chaos a group of determined hackers could cause.
While our reservoir system is federally owned, much of the state’s critical infrastructure is privately held. That means it will require the private and public sectors working together to protect it – and through it, our state’s economy. Companies here need to be taking steps to ensure their systems aren’t vulnerable to an attack. Given that the Colonial hack netted millions of dollars, others will certainly try.
State officials, meanwhile, need to possess a clear understanding of what the private sector is doing to guard against attacks – and be willing to push firms that aren’t taking the threat seriously enough. Our leaders like to keep our regulations light, but it’s important for our state’s well-being that our government is encouraging business to set up safeguards if they haven’t already done so. We might be the country’s least populated state, but we have no shortage of tempting targets.
The Colonial hack caused plenty of problems, but it will soon fade to a distant memory in a year full of crazy news stories. But we cannot forget its lessons. It offered Wyoming a firm reminder that we also have vulnerabilities. Now is the time to ensure our defenses are ready. There’s no doubt that hackers will be looking to test them soon.