Letters, Power Lines, and Other Dangerous Things

From Infrastructures

Letters, Power Lines, and Other Dangerous Things

The Politics of Infrastructure Security

By Ryan Ellis

An examination of how post-9/11 security concerns have transformed the public view and governance of infrastructure.




Open Access


An examination of how post-9/11 security concerns have transformed the public view and governance of infrastructure.

After September 11, 2001, infrastructures—the mundane systems that undergird much of modern life—were suddenly considered “soft targets” that required immediate security enhancements. Infrastructure protection quickly became the multibillion dollar core of a new and expansive homeland security mission. In this book, Ryan Ellis examines how the long shadow of post-9/11 security concerns have remade and reordered infrastructure, arguing that it has been a stunning transformation. Ellis describes the way workers, civic groups, city councils, bureaucrats, and others used the threat of terrorism as a political resource, taking the opportunity not only to address security vulnerabilities but also to reassert a degree of public control over infrastructure.

Nearly two decades after September 11, the threat of terrorism remains etched into the inner workings of infrastructures through new laws, regulations, technologies, and practices. Ellis maps these changes through an examination of three U.S. infrastructures: the postal system, the freight rail network, and the electric power grid. He describes, for example, how debates about protecting the mail from anthrax and other biological hazards spiraled into larger arguments over worker rights, the power of large-volume mailers, and the fortunes of old media in a new media world; how environmental activists leveraged post-9/11 security fears over shipments of hazardous materials to take on the rail industry and the chemical lobby; and how otherwise marginal federal regulators parlayed new mandatory cybersecurity standards for the electric power industry into a robust system of accountability.

The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262538541 384 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 25 figures


  • The book offers new insights into the political origins of critical-infrastructure vulnerability, arguing that decades of deregulation resulted in infrastructures that were increasingly vulnerable to both attacks and failures. But post-9/11 security changes allowed public supervision and accountability to be restored to these infrastructures. Taken together, the book serves as a fascinating case study in how to secure critical infrastructure–and how not to.

    Bruce Schneier

    lecturer at the Harvard Kenedy School; author of Click Here to Kill Everybody

  • In a clearly written and cogently argued analysis of the post-9/11 U.S. postal system, freight rail network, and electric power grid, Ellis shows how deregulation, globalization, and the cultural politics of catastrophism have conspired to imperil our collective future.

    Richard R. John

    author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

  • Letters, Power Lines, and Other Dangerous Things is catnip for infrastructure geeks. By eloquently describing the politics surrounding postal mail, electricity, and railways, Ellis makes the esoteric come to life so that the delighted reader can understand contemporary security debates.

    danah boyd

    Partner Researcher at Microsoft Research and Foundeer/President at Data & Society

  • Exquisitely written and thoroughly researched, Ellis's particular history on the recent waves of technological securitization offers a more general and potent lesson on the indispensability of historical thinking for grappling with the social and political lives of infrastructural systems.

    Gabriella Coleman

    Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University; author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy

Funding provided by:
Arcadia Fund


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262538541 384 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 25 figures