Protecting Critical Infrastructure

Virtually every U.S. citizen counts on the nation’s critical infrastructure for services and products that touch their lives daily. These mission-critical operations include 16 public and private sectors that the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency has deemed to be so crucial that their destruction or disruption would seriously impact the nation’s security, economy or public health.

The country’s thousands of critical infrastructure sites, including communications, transportation, energy, healthcare and food, often have very little in common with their distinct function, size, location and many other factors. Yet, there are commonalities in how they are effectively secured.

Innovation is often key to a successful security effort. Traditional systems and plans – perfectly adequate for a small retail operation or office building – may lack the sophistication to ward off a disaster at facilities targeted by highly focused terrorists. These critical sites require newer technologies or innovative uses of existing equipment, staff and policies and procedures.

However, a successful plan requires more than merely installing the proper equipment. A layered approach, in which the disparate systems integrate and communicate to create the synergy necessary to protect critical infrastructure from risk and liability. It’s a constant battle staying ahead of evolving threats aimed at disrupting these critical sites’ functions.


Preparing and executing a critical infrastructure security plan requires a systems integrator’s assistance. Choose one with a proven track record in this area. However, doing the work the way it’s been done for years isn’t enough. Look for an integrator capable of thinking outside the box, demonstrated through innovative uses of existing equipment and regular testing of new solutions.

The lines between physical and cybersecurity are blurring, making sure the integrator is comfortable with network technology. Seek a provider looking to the future with an understanding of artificial intelligence and other pioneering technologies.

Before beginning any new or retrofit security project, ask your integrator to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment. It should look at surrounding land uses and site access. Consider the expected number of employees and required parking. Will visitors and vendors need access to the site? Identify the security and communications equipment required, as well as written operational policies and procedures. A good study identifies a site’s security strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that limited budgets are spent wisely.

It is impossible to create a one-size-fits-all security plan that fits every critical infrastructure site, each with its own set of challenges. For example, unattended remote facilities may require a battery or solar-powered equipment. Microwave and drone systems help protect perimeters on larger sites. Busy sites benefit from a visitor management system to track vendors.

But let’s take a more in-depth look at recent changes to two commonly used security technologies – access control and video surveillance.


For more than 40 years, Wiegand protocol systems have dominated access control and are still widely used. However, these systems lack signal encryption between proximity cards and readers. Hackers have tools enabling them to intercept transmissions and easily create a working credential.

The Open Supervised Device Protocol, recently accepted as an international access control standard, uses highly secure AES 128- or 256-bit encryption and advanced readers and smartcard technologies. OSDP enables administrators to regularly and simultaneously push new encryption keys to a few or thousands of card readers across one or multiple sites. There’s no need to create a new card for each user as the latest credentials contain multiple codes. Hackers are effectively blocked. Any critical infrastructure site still using the Wiegand protocol must upgrade immediately.

The days of plastic credentials are numbered as other available access control technologies provide greater security and convenience.

Biometrics, which measure unique body characteristics, are recognized by most security professionals as the most accurate method for identity authentication. Biometrics, integrated with card-based systems, enable two-factor identity authentication at the most sensitive entry points. As prices of biometric systems have fallen, they are entirely replacing cards in some facilities.

A biometric system eliminates the need for employees to carry cards or remember a PIN. Once enrolled in a site’s database, employees’ biometrics are recognized at other locations on the same network. Unlike cards, a biometric can’t be lost or shared. Also, face- and iris-based recognition systems are touchless – an essential consideration during the COVID-19 pandemic. And irisbased systems are unaffected by personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and goggles.

Smartphones are another potential card replacement. An app turns an employee’s mobile phone into a virtual key, enabling it to communicate with readers using an encrypted Bluetooth signal. Sending the app via email to visitors and vendors allows them to enter pre-approved doors without registering at the front desk.


Critical infrastructure sites often monitor their live video surveillance feeds. More extensive facilities may involve hundreds of cameras and monitoring all is a trying process under the best of circumstances. False alarms, triggered by harmless events such as blowing tree branches, make the job more difficult. Operators diverted from handling genuine alerts reduce a site’s overall security.

Recently introduced software using artificial intelligence eliminates 90% or more of false alarms by focusing only on movement by humans or vehicles.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Security Today.


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