EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

Smart technology is secure technology

It’s hard to discuss the future of U.S. infrastructure without somehow mentioning the potential benefits of smart technology.

Much like green information technology, smart technology has come to represent different things to different people — the definition usually depends on what someone is trying to sell to you.

In principle, smart technology is about squeezing big performance improvements out of everything from electric grids and transportation networks to water supply systems and health care services by trying to align constrained supply with erratic demand more systematically.

In practice, smart technology is mostly about harnessing a combination of IT products — sensors, monitoring systems, automated controls, modeling and other decision-support applications — more intelligently.

However, there is an important, additional dimension to smart technology: the need to ensure that the information systems used to manage the nation’s infrastructure are secure from hackers and subversive threats. It would better if we called it smart and secure technology.

The poster child for smart technology, at least at the moment, is the smart grid. It also happens to be a perfect example of the need for smart and secure technology.

The national smart-grid program is an effort by the Energy Department, private-sector electrical suppliers and distributors, and others to stitch together a unified system to view and manage the country’s independent power grids. And with good reason: The reliability of the nation’s electrical power supply is as vital to national security as it is essential to the nation’s economic well-being.

From a performance perspective, the nation’s patchwork of electrical grids is a case study in an infrastructure desperately in need of an operating system upgrade. Bringing new technology into the power distribution system is crucial not only to improving efficiency and reliability but also to incorporating new sources of power.

But the electric grid — and the systems that run them — is in equally desperate need of stronger and more consistent IT security standards, as GCN’s Bill Jackson reported in our June 15 issue.

Those concerns were reflected in recent announcements that the electric-utility industry and the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a regulatory group, had taken steps to deal with documented cyber breaches on the networks that run the power grid.

But history has shown that industry tends to invest in only as much security as it thinks it can get by with. That’s one of many reasons why smart technology advocates would help their cause and the nation’s infrastructure by making smart-and-secure technology an explicit proposition.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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