Manhole security and U.S. critical infrastructure

Published 18 October 2007

Manholes are small, inconspicuous, and unattended; they offer easy access to vital underground infrastructure, so we had better think of ways to make them more secure, and do so quickly

In the mid-1980s there was much talk in the United States about the country’s infrastructure. Indeed, Gary Hart of Colorado, who ran against Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, made investment in and improvement of U.S. infrastructure the central theme of his campaign. The word “infrastructure” was repeated so many times, that a New Yorker’s cartoonist could not resist and made it the subject of a cartoon: The cartoon depicted three men in over-alls and hard hats standing next to an open manhole, surrounded by orange cones and a yellow plastic strip. They are busy placing a big sign to warn drivers of the road work underway. The sign reads: “Slow Down — Infrastructuralists at Work.” More than twenty years on, and with the terrorist threat to the United States demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks, attention again is being focused on the relationship between the humble and often overlooked manhole and the nation’s critical infrastructure. To be more precise, more attention should be focused on the vulnerability of the U.S. infrastructure created by unattended and easy-to-access manholes. This is the message of a six-year old Garden City, New York-based Manhole Barrier Security Systems (MBSS). The company’s leading product, Manhole Barrier Device (MBD), is a self-contained manhole locking cover that secures manholes against unauthorized access. It was granted a utility patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The argument that unattended manholes pose a considerable security threat to U.S. infrastructure is persuasively made in a White Paper, titled “Manhole Security: Protecting America’s Critical Underground Infrastructure,” available from the company. The paper was written by Dr. Irwin Pikus, a physicist and attorney who for twenty-five years served in different position in the U.S. government dealing with science, technology, and national security. He is a former commissioner of the president’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (CCIP). Here we can only summarize some of the main points made in the paper. Those in government and the private sector interested in and concerned about infrastructure protection should ask for a copy.

Much of the U.S.— and any other any nation’s — critical infrastructure lies underground: Communications (telephone lines, cables, fiber optics, switching, relaying, and control systems); electric power (power generating stations, transmission lines, control and transformer systems, power distribution systems); natural gas and related energy (natural or manufactured gas, gasoline, and other petroleum products are transported through subsurface pipelines; centrally produced