Seniors are a secret weapon against cyber attacks
The writer is a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank
The ransomware attack that brought down Sweden’s second-largest supermarket chain last week demonstrated once again just how vulnerable advanced economies are to disruption. In this case, a group of hackers targeted a US-based IT company and spread malware through its corporate network, including to Coop supermarkets in Sweden. When Coop’s cash registers became inoperative, the company had no choice but to close approximately 500 stores. This was not a minor inconvenience – in many Swedish towns, Coop stores are the only supermarket.
Disturbances like these occur with more frequency. In May, another ransomware attack disabled Colonial Pipeline, which carries 45% of the oil consumed on the east coast of the United States. When asked during a Senate hearing if his employees were able to operate the pipeline manually, Colonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount said they got confused. But many of those who once operated the pipeline by hand, “they’re retiring or they’re gone,” he added. “Fortunately, we still have that last song from this generation.”
Workers over 50 are often left behind in favor of younger workers with more modern skills. Yet, as ransomware attacks have shown, a digital bias has left some businesses at risk. Older workers often started their careers before the introduction of computer systems. By recognizing their underrated expertise in manual operations, economies would be better equipped to withstand disruption from cyber attacks and natural disasters such as earthquakes, heat waves or floods.
A generation ago, factories, power plants, hospitals, offices, airports, and railroads operated with tougher tools. “Our old power plants were designed to be started manually, but we often removed this option or did not maintain the skills of the employees to perform such a manual restart,” says Erik Brandsma, the former head of the Swedish company. Jämtkraft.
The value of older workers with in-depth operational knowledge was demonstrated two years ago at Norwegian metal and power company Norsk Hydro. Like Colonial Pipeline, Norsk Hydro received a ransom demand but, instead of a shutdown, a group of seasoned workers switched to manual operations, freeing the company from the clutches of attackers. “Without them our production would have dropped,” says Halvor Molland, spokesperson for Norsk Hydro. “They had knowledge that existed 20 years ago but not today, and luckily some are still employed by us while others have returned from retirement to help.”
Aviation is one of the few industries that has retained manual skills. All pilots must be able to fly manually because sophisticated aircraft systems, such as global positioning systems, can be knocked out. For the same reason, the US Navy is once again teaching its sailors celestial navigation.
Other industries are expected to catch up. “The return of these skills would make our economies and societies more robust and sustainable,” says Brandsma. “It would save lives and avoid suffering and high costs. “
The UK government has taken a step in the right direction. In his integrated exam of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy, released in March, it announced plans for a “civilian pool” of experts in all sectors who can help in a crisis. Experienced ‘analogue’ workers in this pool would strengthen the resilience of the UK.
With the proliferation of cyber attacks, many businesses will no doubt see the benefit of having the ability to switch to manual operations. Veteran workers exist and can hide in plain sight – men and women with skills in managing pre-digital manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, financial services, and more. The task of companies is to ensure that these valuable employees are recognized for who they are and that their skills are passed on to a new generation.