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Why Biden’s infrastructure package must bridge the physical and digital worlds

As the Biden administration continues negotiations in the hopes of landing a bipartisan deal on its infrastructure package, conversations are dominated with talk of roads, rails and ports. 

How exactly the package will be financed is a source of much debate – but most Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, would agree that the United States’ physical infrastructure is an essential asset that needs updating.

Separately, most Americans would also agree that we also need to update our digital infrastructure – our financial system, for example, is fragmented, dated, and generally unfit for purpose in many regards. Digitisation efforts are underway, but there is still a long way to go. 

What many don’t realize, however, is quite how closely our physical infrastructure is tied to digital infrastructure. Gone are the days when infrastructure simply meant steel and concrete. Bridges are computerized, highway tolls are automated, and tunnels are monitored with software and hardware around the clock. 

This interconnectivity of the physical and digital worlds came into sharp relief when news of the Colonial Pipeline hack broke earlier this month. An attack on a critical digital asset – Colonial’s data – had a direct impact on a critical physical asset – namely, its entire pipeline system.

Had the hackers needed to physically attack the pipeline to block the supply of gas, they likely wouldn’t have been up to the challenge. But the ransomware infection highlighted the growing sophistication of criminals in the cyber realm and the vulnerability of the digital infrastructure underpinning the country’s physical infrastructure, which has been the target of an increasing number of attacks. Cities, schools and hospitals have all been hit by cybercriminals, who hold a victim's data hostage and then extort a payment to decrypt it. Even the federal government has fallen victim to cybercrime, such as last year’s SolarWinds hack.

As such – in today’s increasingly digital world – any federal legislation focused on updating our infrastructure must also seek to improve the digital systems upon which it relies. One simply cannot operate effectively without the other. 

It has been years since an infrastructure bill of this size and scope has been proposed, and enterprise technology has evolved beyond recognition. Businesses now have at their disposal cutting-edge tools such as AI, machine learning, blockchain and confidential computing. These technologies can revolutionize the way data is stored, shared and protected, and offer all manner of improvements to efficiency, security, productivity and cost effectiveness. 

It is critical that the US invests in the systems required to modernize digital infrastructure and address urgent vulnerabilities that can lead to events such as the Colonial Pipeline hack. This time the net result was a fuel shortage – next time, it could be a total collapse of the electric grid or a shortage of drinking water.

Other countries have already made inroads to overhauling their digital infrastructure. China has positioned ‘new infrastructure’ construction as a key policy pillar of its post-pandemic economic recovery. The State Grid, China’s biggest electricity distributor, last year committed to investing 24.7 billion yuan in digital infrastructure such as cybersecurity technology to protect its smart grids.

The Colonial Pipeline hack represents a new scale of cyber warfare for the US. It serves as a stark reminder to the Biden administration that they must work with the corporate world to improve the resilience of the digital systems on which our infrastructure depends.

This infrastructure package is a unique opportunity to seize the potential of the vast array of new digital technologies that have emerged in recent years. An early warning detection system to identify vulnerabilities to cyberattacks such as the Colonial hack is only the start of what can be achieved if our physical and digital infrastructures are upgraded in unison.


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