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Constant Vigilance

Constant Vigilance

Blog Article Published: 04/14/2011

By Jon Heimerl

Constant Vigilance. Mad-Eye Moody puts it very well. Constant Vigilance.

Unfortunately, these days we need constant vigilance to help protect ourselves and companies from peril. That is not to say that we can never relax and breathe. This is based on a key part of any decent cyber-security program - to prioritize the threats you face and consider the potential impact they could have on your business. Good practice says we need to do those things that really protect us from the big, bad important things - those threats that can really hurt us. "Constant vigilance" says we will actually follow through, do the analysis, and take appropriate mitigating actions.

Why should we worry? We worry because of the difference that any mitigating actions could make on an exigent threat.

Did BP exercise any sense of constant vigilance in the operations of their Deepwater Horizon oil well? The rupture in the oil well originally occurred on April 20, 2010, and the well was finally capped 87 days later on July 16. Estimates are rough, but something on the order of 328 million gallons of oil spilled into the gulf, along with a relatively unknown amount of natural gas, methane, along with other gases and pollutants. At a current market price of $3.59 per gallon, that would have been about $1.2 billion worth of gasoline. BP estimated clean up costs in excess of another $42 billion. Of that amount, BP estimated “response” costs as $2.9 billion. And with the recent news that U.S. prosecutors are considering filling manslaughter charges against some of the BP managers for decisions they made before the explosion, there is a good chance that the U. S. Department of Justice could be considering filing Gross Negligence charges against BP, which could add another $16 billion in fines, and lead the way to billions more in lawsuits.

So I have to ask, what form of vigilance did BP exercise when they constructed and drilled the well? As they demonstrated, they were clearly unprepared for the leak. They responded slowly, and their first attempts at stopping the leak were feeble and ineffective. It seriously looked like they had no idea what they were doing. Not only that, but it quickly became obvious that they did not even have plan for how to deal with the leaking well, or with the clean up, other than to let the ocean disperse the oil. Even if we ignore the leaked oil and associated clean up, if they had spent $2 billion on measures to address the leak, before it happened, they would have come out nearly a billion dollars ahead. $2 billion could have paid for a lot of monitoring, safety equipment, and potential well caps; maybe even a sea-floor level emergency cutoff valve, if they had things ready beforehand. If they had evaluated the potential threat and prepared ahead of time. If they had exercised just a little bit of vigilance. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but by all appearances BP had not even seriously considered how to deal with something like this.

On Friday, March 11, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, hitting the island country, followed by a massive tsunami. The earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant located almost due west from the quake epicenter. Since then, all six of the reactors at the Fukushima plant have had problems. As of the end of March, Japan is still struggling with the reactors, and the radioactive material that has leaked from them. Radioactive plutonium has been discovered in the soil and water outside of some of the reactors, and we still do not know the exact extent of the danger or the eventual cost of this part of the disaster in Japan. The single largest crisis at the plant has been the lack of power that could help keep cooling systems active. The issue at point is that the nuclear plant had skipped a scheduled inspection of the plant that would have included 33 pieces of equipment across the six plant reactors. Among the equipment that was not inspected were a motor and backup power generator, which failed during the earthquake. Efforts to restore power have been hampered by the water from the Tsunami which breached the sea wall and flooded parts of the low lying reactor complex.

We don’t yet know the exact extent of the reactor disaster, and the potential costs for continued clean up and containment, or if such clean up is even possible. But, at best, we can estimate that the cost will exceed many millions of dollars. Would a good measure of diligence have helped minimize the extent of the disaster at Fukushima? We cannot say for sure, but perhaps. Would the inspection have found a problem with the generator that could have helped provide the needed power to the reactor cooling systems? Perhaps the 19 foot sea wall that protected the plant was determined by experts to be appropriate for the job, but the 46 foot tsunami overwhelmed the wall and flooded the facility. I would have to hear from an expert in that area before I made a final judgment, but perhaps better drainage and water pumps to remove excess water would have been appropriate. Much of this is easy to say in hindsight, but perhaps more vigilance upfront would have helped make the disaster more manageable. Or at least, less unmanageable.

We can't foresee everything, and cannot anticipate every conceivable threat. But, we can ask ourselves a couple basic questions.

  1. Where can I find my cool information, systems and resources?
  2. What are the major threats to those things identified in #1?
  3. What can I do to minimize the impact that those threats have on me?

After that, it just takes a little vigilance.

Jon-Louis Heimerl, CISSP

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