The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack and the SolarWinds hack were all but inevitable – why national cyber defense is a ‘wicked’ problem
The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline on May 7, 2021, exemplifies the huge challenges the U.S. faces in shoring up its cyber defenses. The private company, which controls a significant component of the U.S. energy infrastructure and supplies nearly half of the East Coast’s liquid fuels, was vulnerable to an all-too-common type of cyber attack. The FBI has attributed the attack to a Russian cybercrime gang. It would be difficult for the government to mandate better security at private companies, and the government is unable to provide that security for the private sector.
Similarly, the SolarWinds hack, one of the most devastating cyber attacks in history, which came to light in December 2020, exposed vulnerabilities in global software supply chains that affect government and private sector computer systems. It was a major breach of national security that revealed gaps in U.S. cyber defenses.
These gaps include inadequate security by a major software producer, fragmented authority for government support to the private sector, blurred lines between organized crime and international espionage, and a national shortfall in software and cybersecurity skills. None of these gaps is easily bridged, but the scope and impact of the SolarWinds attack show how critical controlling these gaps is to U.S. national security.
The SolarWinds breach, likely carried out by a group affiliated with Russia’s FSB security service, compromised the software development supply chain used by SolarWinds to update 18,000 users of its Orion network management product. SolarWinds sells software that organizations use to manage their computer networks. The hack, which allegedly began in early 2020, was discovered only in December when cybersecurity company FireEye revealed that it had been hit by the malware. More worrisome, this may have been part of a broader attack on government…