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Save Our Infrastructure

The blackout and recent Internet worms highlight the urgent need to secure the IT infrastructure that supply chain technologies like RFID depend on.
By Bob Violino
Aug 23, 2003By Mark Roberti

Aug. 25, 2003 - When the lights went out just after 4 p.m. EST on Thursday, August 14, my first thought was, "No big deal. The power will be back on in a few minutes." I was overly optimistic, of course. We didn't get our power back for 12 hours. Many people in this region were in the dark for more
than a day. And as I write this, more than a week later, some places in Ontario still don't have electricity.

Then, on the heels of the blackout, the MSBlaster virus spread through the Internet like a tabloid rumor. The virus overwhelmed the system at Qwest, a telecom provider for the company that hosts our servers, and the RFID Journal site was offline for almost eight hours. I yelled at the guy who runs the company that hosts our servers, and he screamed at the guy from Qwest, who no doubt took his frustration out on someone else.

It drives me nuts when a technical glitch that’s out of my control inconveniences RFID Journal readers. But it's a lot worse for other companies. New York City business alone suffered more than $1 billion in losses due to the power outage. The viruses didn't do as much damage, but like the blackout, they highlighted the need to safeguard the infrastructure that companies rely on.

The Auto-ID Center's vision from the beginning was to build on the Internet so that companies could look up information related to a shipment's Electronic Product Code. Some people warned early on that it was dangerous to depend on the Internet because it isn't reliable enough to use for transmitting data that's critical to a business.

The Internet has actually proven to be more resilient than experts thought, but as we’ve seen this summer, it's still vulnerable. It’s time for governments around the world to take action to secure not just the Internet and the power generation and distribution grid, but all of the key infrastructure elements that companies rely on. That includes air traffic, roads, shipping lanes, ports and satellite communications.

Each of the G7 countries should set up an infrastructure task force to evaluate the weaknesses in its infrastructure, to estimate how much money will be needed to upgrade it, to determine what security threats exist and to devise ways to prevent attacks on the data and physical infrastructures, either by terrorists or malicious hackers. These task forces should meet once or twice a year to discuss global cooperation.

Governments don't own all of the elements that make up these infrastructures, of course. So this has to be a collaborative effort with the shipping companies, port operators, airlines, telecommunications companies and every business that has a computer connected to the Internet. In this period of slow growth and public sector deficits, no one wants to spend money on something that is not going to provide a return on investment. But we have to spend money now for the sake of the long-term security of the global economy and all the companies that are part of it.

It's not hard to imagine a world 10 years from now where a great deal of supply chain data flows from one company to another. Software agents make routine decisions about rerouting shipments from points where there are surpluses to stores that are short. The IT systems of one company are closely knit together with those of its trading partners. And it's not hard to imagine a relatively minor system failure or attack setting off a chain reaction that brings down a huge swath of the Internet and a part of the economy with it. The losses for some companies and communities could be catastrophic.

It's easier, of course, to do nothing or to focus on more immediate problems. But when the next huge problem strikes, everyone will look for someone else to blame. Is this any way to run the global economy?

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.

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