The Vulnerability of Interconnected Society


The article discusses a NATO Science project focused on addressing the challenges posed by the increasing vulnerability of today’s interconnected society, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The project aims to identify common challenges, review initiatives taken in different countries, and promote greater international cooperation to preserve security and protect society from various non-traditional threats to security.


 Features The vulnerability of interconnected society 
Johnsen: “The terrorist attacks of 11 September
brought our society’s vulnerability to non-traditional
threats into sharp focus.”

The events of 11 September 2001 have added a sense of urgency to a NATO Science project seeking to address the challenges posed by the increasing vulnerability of today’s interconnected society. Launched six months before the fateful day, it comes under the auspices of the Alliance’s Committee on Challenges to Modern Society (CCMS).

In a less connected world, the impact of the terrorist attacks would have been smaller. Apart from the psychological shock, the physical and economic effects beyond the local community and businesses would have been limited. But in today’s interconnected world, the shock waves of the collapse of New York’s twin towers reverberated throughout the global economic system.

“The terrorist attacks of 11 September brought our society’s vulnerability to non-traditional threats into sharp focus,” explains project leader Tor-Petter Johnsen of the Norwegian Research Council. “It also demonstrated how the unthinkable can happen.”

In many ways, the world has never been as vulnerable as it is today because of increasing interconnectivity. New and changing manifestations of vulnerability arise from a more open global community, more complex technological systems, increased dependency on electronic information and communications systems, intertwined food-production and delivery systems, interconnected and increasingly dense transportation systems. The loss for an extended period – whether though terrorist attack, sabotage or technical failure – of a few key mainstays and functions could result in wide-scale disruption.

Critical infrastructures, whose incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on the defence or economic security of the nation, include telecommunication networks, energy pipelines and grids, water supply systems, transport networks, banking and financial services, government services and emergency services.

Underpinning these infrastructures are telecommunication and information systems. The increasing integration of such systems makes it vital to prepare for the possibility of technical failure as well as to ensure information security and protect against disinformation. The increasing use of information and communications technology has also altered the meaning of national borders in the context of national security and preparedness.

The all-pervasiveness of information technology in today’s society and its consequences for societal vulnerability originally spurred Johnsen, who is Norway’s representative on the CCMS, to propose this project. “But as the project has got underway,” he says “participants have increasingly come to see interconnectivity as a problem in itself.”

A key focus has been the risks posed by globalisation and the emergence of single sources of food and technology. Without built-in redundancy or back-up, major disruption could result from the contamination or destruction of one or two vital components, or a breakdown in lines of distribution. Interconnectivity makes it possible for a small, dedicated enemy to cause large-scale destruction at low cost. It also poses a dual threat, since it can either be used to amplify the effect of malicious attack or it can facilitate major disruption should vital components be targeted.

“On the other hand, we must not forget the positive side of interconnectivity,” Johnsen says. “We are better able to help each other because of interconnectivity. Many companies and businesses hit by the terrorist attacks on New York were able to get back online and back in business quite quickly, thanks to back-ups and links with clients, which made it possible to re-route tasks and restore the information flow.”

Preserving security and protecting society from a broad spectrum of challenges requires cooperation and coordination between different agencies in many areas, at both the national and international level. This is being demonstrated by the US-led campaign against terrorism, which involves not only military cooperation but also diplomatic, financial, economic, intelligence, customs and police cooperation.

The range of challenges is so broad that responsibility cuts across many different ministries. In many countries, initiatives are under way to review or initiate new organisational structures. In Norway, for example, parliament is considering a proposal to centralise responsibility for national safety and preparedness. In the United States, an Office for Homeland Security has been created.

The CCMS project, launched in March 2001, aims to identify common challenges, to take stock of initiatives being taken in different countries, and define areas where greater international cooperation could be useful. Norway has taken the lead on the project, which also involves Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The blurring of the traditional split between military and civilian threats makes NATO and the CCMS an opportune arena for addressing the need for an integrated approach. The Committee provides a unique forum for sharing knowledge and experiences on technical, scientific and policy aspects of social and environmental matters, both in the civilian and military sectors.

Addressing non-traditional threats to security is one of five key objectives guiding work under the CCMS. Other objectives include reducing the environmental impact of military activities; conducting regional studies including cross-border activities; preventing conflicts in relation to scarcity of resources; and addressing emerging risks to the environment and society that could cause economic, cultural and political instability. Work is based on decentralised activities involving participation in pilot studies, projects, workshops and seminars, funded nationally.
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