Several pipelines carrying natural gas or petroleum products originate, cross or terminate in the Huntington Tri-State region. Thus, what happened last week with the Colonial Pipeline carries concern locally.
Late last week the pipeline was hit by a ransomware attack in which unauthorized parties gain access to a computer system and hold it hostage until a ransom is paid. The attack caused the pipeline system to shut down, which interrupted flows of liquid fuels to major cities in the Southeast and Northeast.
The pipeline is owned by a consortium of five companies and is operated by Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline. It carries gasoline and other fuel from Texas to the Northeast. It delivers roughly 45% of fuel consumed on the East Coast. The pipeline originates in the Houston area. Its route includes Baton Rouge, Atlanta and Charlotte before terminating at Linden, New Jersey, in the New York City harbor area.
According to the Associated Press, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Sunday that ransomware attacks are “what businesses now have to worry about,” and that she will work “very vigorously” with the Department of Homeland Security to address the problem, calling it a top priority for the administration.
The Department of Transportation issued a regional emergency declaration Sunday, relaxing hours-of-service regulations for drivers carrying gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other refined petroleum products in 17 states and the District of Columbia. It lets them work extra or more flexible hours to make up for any fuel shortage related to the pipeline outage, according to the AP.
The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline is one face of modern warfare. Instead of large-scale military incursions involving a massive amount of equipment, munitions and personnel, attacks are carried out online to disable critical infrastructure of a nation or a region. It’s the kind of attack governments can outsource to private entities or to other nations while maintaining plausible deniability of any responsibility.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the idea of homeland security has had its most visible efforts aimed at the American public. It’s why airport security has become a pain and why government officials have made entering public buildings more difficult.
What this ransomware attack on a pipeline has shown is that threats to American infrastructure — pipelines, the electric grid, communications and others — is just as much a threat to shutting down society. According to the Wall Street Journal, many companies in these industries still rely on old computer operating systems that are vulnerable to remote attacks. Because these systems must operate 24/7/365, taking them down for upgrades is not a simple or inexpensive task.
It’s possible pipeline or other infrastructure in this region has been hit with ransomware or similar attacks that never became public knowledge.
Only time will tell if these attacks become more common before they taper off. The general public might not know unless it notices that large attacks such as the one on Colonial Pipeline are getting fewer.