Cyber-Attacks Are the Biggest National Security Threat

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta said, “The next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack that cripples our government, security and financial systems.”

The remarks came after recent efforts by the Pentagon to classify cyber-attacks within the laws of armed conflict, giving commanders the option of ordering military strikes against hackers backed by foreign nations. As one unnamed official put it, “if you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”

With roughly 1.8 million cyber-attacks already aimed at Congress and federal agencies, cyber-terrorism already poses a massive threat to our national security, but with 60,000 new malicious software files being developed daily, the problem will only get bigger. The computer is indispensable in our increasingly internationalized world, trammeled by neither space nor time. Cyber-attacks pose a great threat to national security, our economy, and well-being, making the faceless terrorist in front of the computer screen the biggest threat to the U.S. in the not so distant future.

Former Pentagon cyber expert Sami Saydari agrees that the U.S. is vulnerable to sabotage in defense, power, telecommunications, and banking. Former Marine General Peter Pace acknowledges that the U.S. has not developed an effective cyber defense saying, “we're way late.”

The recent release of the documentary, The Internet Storm is Coming, which candidly shows China’s cyber-weaponry and attack ability on a Chinese state-run TV program, highlights the need for increased cyber-attack defense. The six-minute video shows a military program initiating a cyber-attack on a website based out of the University of Alabama. Five months earlier, the Department of Defense was targeted by an unknown foreign intelligence service that stole about 24,000 highly sensitive Pentagon files, which included information on missile tracking systems, satellite navigation devices, surveillance drones, and high performance jet fighters. In 2008, Russia was accused of launching a cyber-attack on U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Critical infrastructures including water supply are also at risk. In March, a California water system tested the effectiveness of its cyber defenses by hiring a cyber-security team to try to hack its network. Unfortunately, the team was able to successfully hack the computers responsible for adding chemicals to the drinking water of Los Angeles, a dangerous flaw if found by those seeking to kill thousands of Americans. 

Cyber-attacks continue to outpace the efforts of the government to combat them. The Department of Homeland Security's cyber defense budget requested $936 million for 2012, with two top priorities being a U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team ($391 million) and mitigation programs ($190 million). The DHS should work in collaboration with the private sector to strengthen cyber-security risk assessment activities. Without a combination of encouragement and regulation, the private sector has little motivation. Facilitation of information-sharing in real time about cyber threats should also be strengthened.      

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Hassan Mirza

Hassan Mirza has worked as a political-military analyst intern for the Hudson Institute. He was also a member of the Baruch Model United Nations team that represented Burkina Faso, Slovenia and South Korea. He also participated in the Harvard Model United Nations conference and represented Switzerland. He likes to read on various subjects including continental philosophy, astronomy, and classic literature.

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