In the wireless industry the term mission critical communications has come to embrace a wide range of applications. What in the relatively recent past may have been the sole purview of a number of organisations for whom the reliability of communications was vital to their operations - such as those in the emergency services or defence sector- has widened into a much broader set of applications.
For many businesses optimised on the basis of just-in-time delivery models, their communications infrastructure has become critical to their ability to function. If the mission critical communications fails the company’s business reputation suffers. In highly competitive market places it is often difficult to recover from such set-backs.
In this situation it is easy to see how communications systems are now seen to be mission critical to a business. This is especially true now that many businesses also operate online. For organisations such as Amazon and other major online retailers, the loss of any of their web services is without argument critical to their business.
Commercial organisations are also always seeking ways to optimise their cost base. This is a key fact of life in the private sector. Whereas in the past many would tolerate a degree of wasted overhead, today every element of their costs is scrutinised with great care.
For some business operators, such as the Royal Mail, a key challenge is to optimise the amount of floor space they need to run their operations. The same argument is well understood by major retailers who constantly monitor where best to base their outlets and warehousing capacity in order to respond to changing local demographics.
At peak times however, such as at Christmas, additional warehousing needs to be taken on for short periods of time. Outfitting such facilities with basic communications systems required a lot of planning. Today with wireless solutions businesses can quickly stand-up additional floor space when it is required and link the temporary systems deployed to those locations into wider corporate networks.
In many instances the additional network capacity required is not onerous.
Applications that track stock for example do not carry the kind of bandwidth overheads that some security applications require, such as moving real-time video into surveillance centres.
This allows major corporations to be agile and respond to the dynamics of the market-place. One way of looking at this is to think of businesses flexing their Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) using wireless-based technologies as an enabler. Quick to deploy, and easy to remove once the peak requirement for additional space has passed; wireless technology offers many important advantages to businesses.
In the public sector similar pressures can emerge. As the threat from terrorism has evolved in the last decade a great deal of the discussion has centred on the protection of CNI. In the United Kingdom the Contest counter-terrorism strategy had one of its four pillars dedicated to the protection of CNI.
Much of the work that has been carried out has looked at physical ways of improving the security at key locations, such as airports, major shopping centres and sporting stadiums. These are the kind of crowded places which often fall into the cross wires of terrorists. However, the definition of CNI goes much wider and includes major oil refineries, ports, transport hubs and elements critical to the day-to-day operation of the state.
But what is sometimes overlooked in the public sector is that they also have to be able to flex their CNI. It is tempting to see CNI as being in fixed locations. Once these have been protected against whatever the current threat is seen to pose, attention can be turned elsewhere. This approach is fine for static sites.
Sporting events such as the Olympic Games in London in 2012 provide a good example of where the CNI has to be dynamic. For a short period of time a number of locations around the country became vital to the national interest. If a terrorist attack had occurred against one of the Olympic venues it would have tarnished the reputation of the whole country.
The impact on the economy would have been fundamental. It was not something political leaders were prepared to risk. For the period of the Olympic Games, the definition of what was CNI had to be enhanced and the costs would be absorbed.
Across the country specific locations were created to host particular events. The mountain biking in Essex, the white water rafting in Hertfordshire, rowing events at Eaton Dorney and the sailing at Weymouth in Dorset provide contrasting examples of how the national CNI was temporarily increased during the Olympic Games.
At all of these locations the presence of the sporting events also created a security overhead which required the installation of a number of temporary closed circuit television cameras. Networking those into a central control room also benefited from the use of wireless networks. Temporary communications infrastructure also had to be put in place to support traffic control in and around the sites.
In these locations wireless technology again proved its versatility. The Highways Agency was able to deploy a range of mobile traffic advisory services around the venues to help ease traffic congestion. The messaging on the signs was updated from a central control room.
This proved crucial around Weymouth when a major road traffic accident occurred which temporarily blocked one of the main arteries that had been specifically opened to help ease traffic flow during the Olympics.
There is, however, one cautionary note to sound. Throughout the Olympic Games and at other sporting events in the future there is little doubt that wireless technologies will again be deployed on a temporary basis. In those situations it is important that those responsible also pay attention to enabling the right levels of security on the networks. Dangers lie in wait if this is ignored.
Whilst terrorists have yet to exploit cyber-space in any meaningful way to add further confusion to an attack, it is an area that may come into their thinking. It is not hard to imagine the additional disruption and publicity value that hacking into fixed and temporary Highways Agency signs could create.
They are too many ways in which an organisation’s reputation can be seriously damaged. A failure to ensure that wireless networks are properly secured can provide opportunities for those seeking to make a point to achieve their aim.
In helping the private and public sectors use wireless technology to provide flexible solutions to meet short-term business priorities, a focus on the security measures put in place must not be lost. This is something that applies both to the fixed and temporary elements of the CNI.
About the author: Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent academic, author and freelance writer specialising in irregular warfare with more than 20 years of experience in communications systems. He recently chaired the first day of the Global Counter Terrorism conference at the Counter Terror Expo 2013 in London.