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Why Environmental Risk Managers Need to Worry About Cybersecurity

Why Environmental Risk Managers Need to Worry About Cybersecurity

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By Dr. Phyllis J. Langone
Faculty Member, Environmental Science at American Public University

According to the Department of Homeland Security, cybersecurity is a big deal. Our increasing reliance on cyberspace as a means of storing and relaying often very sensitive information has spawned an entire industry devoted to protecting that information. Cybersecurity breaches are often trumpeted in the headlines. Breaches may involve banks, insurers, government agencies, retailers, or other entities.

It may not be immediately obvious that a cyber-attack might pose an environmental risk. Why would it? What is easily seen is that there are many potential industrial threats to the environment. There is the pollution resulting from normal operations and the occasional accident. But what about terrorist acts?

In the past, all industrial processes were controlled manually or from a locally triggered switch. This meant an aspiring saboteur would somehow have to pull off an inside job. If the saboteur or an accomplice could not physically gain access to the switch or cause damage directly, the plan fell apart and business for the targeted entity went on as usual.

This has changed. Many processes that were once carried out manually are now done online. This extends beyond processes related to production. Even companies that simply store or transport hazardous materials or those that manage waste or critical resources, such as drinking water supplies, may have critical cyber vulnerabilities. Although sensitive information is generally protected with closed networks, firewalls, encryption, and/or other techniques, there seems to be no shortage of individuals who will attempt to hack through even the best security measures.

So what does all of this mean? It means that damaging or even catastrophic environmental releases may be triggered remotely by determined hackers, who come in all forms. They may be acting independently, simply for the challenge, or may be associated with a group or government with an agenda that wants to do harm. Regardless of the specific source or motivation, the threat is out there and ignoring it is not an option for those tasked with managing environmental risk.

About the Author
Dr. Phyllis Langone teaches a wide variety of courses, including EVSP560 Environmental Risk Assessment and EVSP412 Environmental Management Systems, for the Environmental Science programs at American Public University. She holds a bachelor’s in psychology from the State University of New York, master’s degrees in business administration, biology, and secondary education from Adelphi University, and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from City University of New York.

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