A forgotten aspect on cyber and cyber conflicts impact on our society is the fact that tampering with our control systems can lead to industrial processes running amok - and lead to environmental damages. Threats to our environment is taken very serious by the population and pollution and contamination of our living space trigger drastic reactions.
We are surrounded by materials and liquids that could be harmful if released or mixed. An example is the sizeable U.S. chemical industry. Manufacturing plants and storage facilities store large quantities of industrial chemicals. The U.S. chemical industry produces chemical products to a value of $759 billion in 2011. More than 96 percent of all manufactured products in the U.S. are relying on chemical input material.
The U.S. is responsible for 15 percent of the world's chemical production. In the U.S., each year is 847 million tons of chemicals transported on railways, highways, and freight ships. The transportation routes are near to creeks, rivers, ground water aquifers, urban areas, and agricultural land. These chemical fluids can, once released, create contamination that require long-term mitigation, restoration, and in some cases land subsidence equal to an EPA Superfund site.
Environmental hazards that lead to loss of life, and dramatic long-term loss of quality of life for citizens, trigger a demand for the government to act. If the population questions the government's ability to protect and safeguard, the government's legitimacy and authority will suffer.
One example is the Three Mile Island accident, which had an impact, even decades after the incident, on how citizens perceived the government's nuclear policies and ability to ensure that nuclear power was a safe energy source. Harold R. Denton, the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, was able to calm the public and reduce the fear during the Three Mile Island accident. During the duration of the events Harold R. Denton was President Jimmy Carter's personal representative at the site. It was essential for President Carter to show and project ability to handle the incident and to restore confidence in the general public for the government's energy policies. The public notion of environmental risk is driven not only by logic, but also emotions, foremost by uncertainty and fear of the future. A population that fears the future has lost confidence in government.
The difference with the Three Mile Island incident and cyber attacks on our infrastructure creating environmental damage is that the Three Mile Island incident was local, and it could be contained and understood.
For an adversarial nation that seeks to influence our population and inject fear, cyber-created environmental damages have a high payoff -- especially if the cyber operations are covert and unlikely to be attributed. Is it legal by international law? No, of course not, but these adversarial countries are often not bothered by legal "technicalities,” and the question is rather their perception of the risk of detection and strength of a potential U.S. retaliation.
If an adversarial nation can inject fear in fraction of our population they have an option they can use at their discretion. Therefore cyberdefense must go beyond the information systems and look at the