Roaming Roman Infrastructure: Barbarian Threats Remain
This month’s column is based on a podcast I conducted with Michael Assante. We delved into the ancient world to explore the secrets of the Roman aqueducts and what their construction may tell us to apply to our modern infrastructures. Assante touches upon our reliance on computer software and the fear of cyber attacks, separating fact from myth while emphasizing what is being done and what still lies ahead.
Assante is a critical infrastructure protection strategist who has written a paper entitled: Infrastructure Protection In The Modern World: What the Romans Can Tell Us About Their Aqueducts. His company, Idaho National Labs, is affiliated with the Department of Energy, providing advice to the Department of Defense among others.
The Core: Parallels To Ancient
Hunt: Even though I am a history buff, I never realized how similar the ancient Roman aqueducts are to our modern energy infrastructure. What inspired you to write this paper?
Assante: I wanted to see what we could learn from how the Roman leaders protected their infrastructures. In ancient times, water defined the flow of life; thereby the concept of Roman security concerned the protection of their aqueducts. Today, electricity is the issue.
Hunt: How did the ancient world protect their infrastructures?
Assante: In the early days of the Roman Empire, there was always the threat of an open siege from the mountains and invading barbarian tribes. The very first aqueduct the Romans ever built reflects the importance they placed on security. Not only was it one of the largest aqueducts ever constructed, it was also underground, preventing the enemy from both locating ’s water supply and poisoning it.
Hunt: Did the Romans have a period when they did not feel their homeland was threatened, similar to the mind-set of the after 1812 and before the onset of world war?
Assante: In some ways we have suffered from the same fears as the ancient Romans. At the height of power under Marcus Aurelius, Roman leaders were not worried about outside threats. They had conquered the Carthaginians and subjugated barbarian tribes. Their only fears concerned the possibility of slave revolts internally. At this time, arches and arcades appear as aqueducts are built above the ground, and many benefits arise, most notably the Roman baths. As the empire becomes more secure, it also becomes more vulnerable to attack.
After World War II, the became more committed to national security and we witnessed an increase in the building of interstate highways, which eased our ability to move our armed forces across the country and thus became part of our security infrastructure. Our modern infrastructure, which is based on electrical power, grew up over a relatively peaceful period of time.
Hunt: I always thought the national highways were built to make it easier for Americans to travel across country. I never realized it was because we had security in mind.
Assante: Our modern electric infrastructure evolved in secure times and was not designed to protect us against external threats.
Hunt: The Germanic tribes won and breached the Roman infrastructure. How did that happen?
Assante: The Romans taught the barbarian tribes their technology, and they in turn became part of the military machine. They understood winning tactics and strategy.
Our National Debate
Hunt: What can we as a nation learn from all this? It’s clear that our electric grid was deployed in a naive fashion without concern for protection. Is it too late for us? Are we doomed like the ancient civilizations?
Assante: The lesson from is to learn the importance of infrastructure life cycles. Aqueducts faded away because they were linked to ’s military power and couldn’t bounce back when fell. We must urge our engineers to consider the risk factor and mitigations to risk for the life cycle of our infrastructure. Threats to our homeland are constantly changing, and there must be some flexibility to accommodate future security threats.
Hunt: It’s not clear who you mean by “we,” and you as the chief security officer of a major utility know that all security officers have to work with their own staff to protect their own organizations. How can this be properly organized?
Assante: It’s time for a national debate. There has been an awareness of the need for a change in our infrastructure since 9/11, but it takes time for society to react to change. We must decide whether to upgrade or do we completely alter our current system. Now is a good time to debate because the threat to our homeland is not at a significant level.
In ancient , the choice of who would construct the aqueducts would fall to either the Emperor or a designated prominent citizen to commission public works. National security is a governmental responsibility, but we as a populace balk when the government establishes mandates, and any government is limited in what it can do. More and more, security for the common good is falling into the hands of the private sector.
The Power of Threats
Hunt: There is a much darker side to this issue. In ancient times, the enemy was in sight and it was much clearer who was “we” and who was “them.” Today we don’t know who we are protecting ourselves against, especially when dealing with guerilla warfare.
Assante: How we safeguard ourselves is much more of a challenge today than it was in the ancient world. National security is directly linked to the construction of our infrastructures. The individual is empowered to do more through the avenues offered by technology. The dark side you refer to is certainly more challenging than the threats faced by ancient civilizations.
Today we get stuck in yesterday’s thinking. We must face the fact that the old national security models simply don’t work anymore and that individuals, through the mastery of technology, present more threats than nations do.
The Takeaway from the Podcast
Thanks for the scare, Michael. All these years, we have enjoyed the benefits of our infrastructure. The true cost is protection for the sake of insurance and we must seek out and proactively destroy threats to our security. We must bear some of the cost now in order to defray a much greater cost later. We can do this through avenues offered by education, intelligence and counter intelligence.
As someone involved in cyber security, it’s Michael’s job to start this sort of discussion, so they can learn how to design for the lifetime of their infrastructure. Technology tends to push itself in front, and as Michael put it, “The insidious power of technology was also a factor in the downfall of . Our children have grown up with this technology. They understand it. The terrorists of tomorrow will evolve from their generation.”
The “bad guys” will only get smarter which will make the damage continually greater. I think we have all come to realize the importance of infrastructure protection and how, in order for it to work effectively, everyone must take a role in it.