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America’s Most Critical Infrastructure is also Our Most Neglected Infrastructure

This special report is the first of a two-part series designed to both inform OODA members on the nature of challenges to our nation’s most critical infrastructure and provide recommendations for action that can mitigate these challenges. For part two see: Mitigating Risks To America’s Cognitive Infrastructure

Our thesis is that America’s most critical infrastructure is our cognitive infrastructure. This is also the most attacked and least defended.

In short, our most important infrastructure is also our most neglected infrastructure.

We recognize that most all of our members are deeply experienced in the matters we are exploring in this series and we would welcome your feedback/comments and suggestions. We would also encourage you to use this information to shape your personal approach to decision-making as well as the approach in your business or organization.

The first in the series describes the nature of the problem. The second will dive into mitigation strategies.

Background on the concept of Critical Infrastructures:

In the mid-1990’s the U.S. government embarked on a journey to enhance the protection of our critical infrastructures in the Information Age by establishing a Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP). The context and recommendations coming out of this commission created the foundational approaches for the government’s role in infrastructure protection still in place today.

The commissioners of the PCCIP recommended the government find ways to support 8 critical infrastructures by enabling better collaboration and information sharing between government and the private sector.


In the decades since the PCCIP report the need for infrastructure protection has only grown. There are now 16 critical infrastructures designated by the government for enhanced collaboration and cooperation via public private partnerships. The officially designated Critical Infrastructure of the nation are:

  • Chemical Sector: Facilities that produce, store and transport chemicals
  • Commercial Facilities Sector: A diverse range of sites that draw large crowds of people for shopping business, entertainment or lodging
  • Communications Sector: Telecommunications of all types. This is a special sector since it underlies the operation of all businesses, public safety and government
  • Critical Manufacturing: Key parts of our ability to make things
  • Dams Sector: Comprises dam projects, navigation locks, levees, hurricane barriers, and similar facilities
  • Defense Industrial Base: Those parts of the commercial sector that enables research, development, design, production, delivery and maintenance of military systems
  • Emergency Services Sector: Covering a wide range of prevention, preparedness, response and recovery services
  • Energy Sector: The capabilities required to produce and move energy
  • Financial Services Sector: Covering all services associated with finance and insurance
  • Food and Agriculture Sector: The segment of the economy that produces and distributes food and agricultural products
  • Government Facilities Sector: All infrastructure of government. The elections infrastructure is considered under this sector.
  • Healthcare and Public Health Sector: all that is needed to sustain health and healthcare
  • Information Technology Sector: The firms that provide technology capabilities not already covered under telecom
  • Nuclear Reactors, Materials and Waste Sector: Covering this key component since it is more unique than other energy production and distribution systems
  • Transportation Systems: The capabilities to move people, products and material anywhere at any time
  • Water and Wastewater Systems: Capabilities to move and protect our water supply

After years of work, progress is being made in improving the defense of each of these sectors, and a great deal of risk has been mitigated. However, it is clearer than ever that we have missed the most critical infrastructure of all: our cognitive decision-making infrastructure. It is our most neglected critical infrastructure.



What is the Cognitive Infrastructure?

The nation’s cognitive infrastructure includes the mental capacities of our citizens and the decision-making ability of people, organizations and our government. It also includes the information channels used to feed our decision-making capabilities and the education and training systems used to prepare people and organizations for critical thinking.

Our cognitive infrastructure is threatened in ways few of us ever imagined just a few years ago. Old style propaganda has been modernized and is now being aided by advanced technologies and new information dissemination methods.

New technologies being leveraged by adversaries to attack our infrastructure include:

  • Internet-based communications technologies that enable anonymous action from a distance.
  • Machine learning algorithms that can extract information from massive quantities of data. These algorithms can be used for a variety of purposes including learning previously unknowable things about people, their behaviors, and deepest desires, all of which can aid adversaries seeking to manipulate cognition.
  • An Internet that is optimized to deliver information through ads to tailorable audiences across multiple devices and track who sees what.
  • Artificial Intelligence that can help create the right message to influence an audience, and then quickly re-tailor messages on the fly to improve desired outcomes.
  • Tools that can manipulate images, audio and sound to create deceptive messages, including creating entire events that never occurred. These tools are now so easy to use that amateurs are “face swapping” faces into videos of their choosing just for fun. These tools are being weaponized across video, text and audio.
  • Tools that can take entire sources of information offline through denial of service attacks.
  • Fragile security systems that can be penetrated remotely to enable planting of information or extraction of data for malicious use.

Adversaries seeking to exploit our cognitive infrastructure are also aided by the many new information channels that reach our citizens and organizations. They include all the old media plus:

  • Email, voice and video that connects everyone everywhere.
  • Social media, including Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, which enables anyone to create and disseminate and consume any content.
  • New genres of information include podcasts, blogs, streaming video (YouTube), on demand entertainment (Netflix, AppleTV, Apple Music, Amazon video), on demand books (Kindle and ebooks).
  • Many video games can serve as communications media, including immersive video games using virtual reality and augmented reality.
  • Government and corporate information systems which enable instant broadcasting of messages to individuals. These are controlled by people who can be tricked into transmitting the wrong information or can simply screw up (reducing credibility while doing so).
  • Cable and broadcast TV is in just about every house and can even reach people on their mobile devices.

This all means that today, 330 million Americans are being bombarded with information that can be not just wrong, and not just deceptive, but malicious in ways we are not prepared to defend against.

What is the potential impact of the threat to our cognitive infrastructure? Imagine a world where:

  • Groups of people can manipulated and driven to violence
  • The credibility of any fact can not only be challenged, but deceptively refuted in ways many will believe
  • No source is considered authoritative. No expert or researcher or academic or business leader or judge or jury will have credibility to provide the final answer on any subject
  • Technologies that distort reality will continue to evolve faster than our ability to detect distorted reality. People will find it harder and harder to tell what is real
  • Any individual anywhere in the globe can make it seem like an event has happened, even if it did not
  • Organizations created to gain knowledge, including government agencies, think tanks and academic organizations, are fed false information that increases error rates, and even when they are acting on good information have their credibility attacked
  • Reality apathy sets in. The false world of fake stories that sound good and immersive entertainment will be so much more attractive to people, with growing
  • Elections become moot, because the only politicians that can win are those that are masters of deception

It is pretty clear that our cognitive infrastructure deserves to be treated with the respect of our other critical infrastructures. Just like the other sectors, this is not something that free societies place the government in charge of fixing. But we do, and should, determine the role of government in helping to fix these challenges.

The next post in this series examines what the government can do to help mitigate some of these challenges. It will also spell out things that business, academia and our citizens can do to address the threats to our cognitive infrastructure.

Till then please give us your thoughts on the above. Have we articulated the challenge correctly?

Additional Resources:

A Practitioner’s View of Corporate Intelligence

This post is part of a series providing insights aimed at corporate strategists seeking competitive advantage through better and more accurate decision-making.

Organizations in competitive environments should continually look for ways to gain advantage over their competitors. The ability of a business to learn and translate that learning into action, at speeds faster than others, is one of the most important competitive advantages you can have. This fact of business life is why the model of success in Air to Air combat articulated by former Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd, the Observe – Orient – Decide – Act (OODA) decision loop, is so relevant in business decision-making today.

In this business model, decisions are based on observations of dynamic situations tempered with business context to drive decisions and actions. These actions should change the situation meaning new observations and new decisions and actions will follow. This all underscores the need for a good corporate intelligence program. See: A Practitioner’s View of Corporate Intelligence

Optimizing Corporate Intelligence

This post is part of our Intelligent Enterprise series, which providing insights aimed at corporate strategists seeking competitive advantage through better and more accurate decision-making. The first post provided foundational insights into A Practitioner’s View of Corporate Intelligence. This one dives into actionable recommendation on ways to optimize a corporate intelligence effort. It is based on a career serving large scale analytical efforts in the US Intelligence Community and in applying principles of intelligence in corporate America. See: Optimizing Corporate Intelligence

Mental Models For Leadership In The Modern Age

The study of mental models can improve your ability to make decisions and improve business outcomes. This post reviews the mental models we recommend all business and government decision makers master.

An Executive’s Guide To Cognitive Bias in Decision Making

Cognitive Bias and the errors in judgement they produce are seen in every aspect of human decision-making, including in the business world. Companies that have a better understanding of these cognitive biases can optimize decision making at all levels of the organization, leading to better performance in the market. Companies that ignore the impact these biases have on corporate decision-making put themselves at unnecessary risk. This post by OODA Co-Founder Bob Gourley provides personal insights into key biases as well as mitigation strategies you can put in place right now. See: An Executive’s Guide To Cognitive Bias in Decision Making

OODA On Corporate Intelligence In The New Age

We strongly encourage every company, large or small, to set aside dedicated time to focus on ways to improve your ability to understand the nature of the significantly changed risk environment we are all operating in today, and then assess how your organizational thinking should change.

As an aid to assessing your corporate sensemaking abilities, this post summarizes OODA’s research and analysis into optimizing corporate intelligence for the modern age. See: OODA On Corporate Intelligence In The New Age

Useful Standards For Corporate Intelligence

This is the third post in our special series on the Intelligent Enterprise. The first, titled, A Practitioner’s View of Corporate Intelligence, provided foundational insights to kickstart any corporate intelligence program. The second, titled Optimizing Corporate Intelligence, provided best practices and actionable information you can use to improve and professionalize your corporate intelligence activities. This post discusses standards in intelligence, a topic that can improve the quality of all corporate intelligence efforts and do so while reducing ambiguity in the information used to drive decisions and enhancing the ability of corporations to defend their most critical information. See: Useful Standards For Corporate Intelligence

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social