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Mapping the Matrix

Sean Gorman, the former George Mason University graduate student whose research into weaknesses underlying the nation's critical infrastructures sent government officials scrambling to seize and/or classify it as a threat to national security, has published much of his work in a new book entitled "Networks, Security And Complexity: The Role of Public Policy in Critical Infrastructure Protection."

Two years ago, Gorman raised the hackles of the national security community when it got out that his dissertation included detailed maps of the intersections of and weak spots in the power, telecommunications and transportation networks that support the business and industrial sector in the U.S. economy. At the time, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said Gorman's findings were so sensitive that he "should turn it in to his professor, get his grade -- and then they both should burn it."

From The Post story of mid-2003:

"He can click on a bank in Manhattan and see who has communication lines running into it and where. He can zoom in on Baltimore and find the choke point for trucking warehouses. He can drill into a cable trench between Kansas and Colorado and determine how to create the most havoc with a hedge clipper. Using mathematical formulas, he probes for critical links, trying to answer the question: 'If I were Osama bin Laden, where would I want to attack?' In the background, he plays the Beastie Boys."

Granted, some of the most sensitive stuff Gorman uncovered remains under lock and key and is not included in the book. In addition, a lot of the information he used to chart his maps is no longer available to the general public, having been yanked from the Internet, government Web sites and public records stores. Much of it is now available only through commercial databanks whose gatekeepers often closely screen anyone requesting the information.

"What I found in general is that there used to be a lot more data that was freely available online, whereas most of that stuff you now have to purchase offline," Gorman said in a telephone interview today. Still, he added, "it is amazing how much of this stuff can still be located with some of the free Internet archiving tools out there," like the Wayback Machine (a.k.a. 

Gorman said the practical lessons he hoped the public and private sector would take from his research -- that a lack of investment in complex, interconnected networks means that isolated or regional breakdowns in one network can produce amplified, unpredictable results in other connected systems -- still need to be absorbed.

To that end, he points to the ripple effects from Hurricane Katrina, where a lack of investment in physical infrastructure led to broken levees, which led to power outages, which caused telecommunications failures and darkened oil refineries, prompting oil pumping station shutdowns and gasoline price spikes, which in turn had a huge, distributed impact on the nation's manufacturing and transportation systems.

"As Katrina made clear, there are still lots and lots of issues, and this is not something we can solve in a year or two," he said.

The challenge, he said, is convincing the companies that own and operate 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructures that it is in their own best interests to make long-term investments in resilient and redundant networks. Unfortunately, he said, the trend thus far in corporate America has largely been an inexorable march in the opposite direction, toward greater consolidation and less capital investment.

"I think both the government and the private sector are just now starting to realize the scope [of] effort that needs to be made to create a resilient infrastructure. A lot of that is the government getting the right incentives in place, but even when they've got that part right, the business investments still have to be made."

Working with two GMU professors, Gorman has since started a software company that uses geospatial methods for analyzing the security of nation's critical infrastructures. He is also working with a Department of Homeland Security task force that is slated to issue recommendations to the White House next month on ways to improve the security of the U.S. infrastructure.

Gorman said he is optimistic that the aftermath of Katrina will serve as an effective reminder to decision-makers that fixing such complex problems will take strategic planning and long-term investments.

"If we end up just throwing money at the problem, then we're just doomed to repeat the same mistakes," he said.

By Brian Krebs  |  September 19, 2005; 2:03 PM ET
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