There’s a war going on every day that the majority of Americans don’t know about. Though bullets and missiles haven’t been fired over traditional battlefields, soldiers on the digital frontlines have been engaged in cyber conflict for years.
Despite possessing the capacity to engage in full cyber warfare, the United States has predominantly refused to employ such tactics even as the threat continues to grow.
In 2010, former Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair told Congress, “Malicious cyberactivity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication.” One year later, acting DHS Deputy Undersecretary Greg Schaffer told reporters that U.S. utilities and industries are becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks as they wire their industrial machinery to the Internet.
And this week, cyber security firms discovered a computer virus that is using service members’ network security cards to hack into government networks.
Yes, America is embroiled in a virtual war, and unfortunately, we are not winning.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other senior DoD officials have called cyber-attacks one of the greatest threats to America’s national security, and an area in which the U.S. military is the farthest behind.
It isn’t that we don’t have the know-how to protect ourselves: According to a 2011 Los Angeles Times article, “the NSA and Cyber Command have the world's most advanced capabilities … and could undoubtedly wreak havoc on the networks of any country that attacked the U.S.,” but there are reasons why the U.S. is behind the cyber curve.
First, most people in the U.S. are oblivious to the threat of cyber-attacks and therefore create opportunities for cyber spying and hacking, using weak passwords to protect confidential information and opening documents without knowing the sender.
Second, the U.S. is only willing to engage in cyber warfare as a last-ditch military option.
The New York Times reported in October that the Obama administration debated cyber warfare before the American-led strikes against Libya, but instead relied on more traditional military routes. An Obama official said, “These cyber capabilities are still like the Ferrari that you keep in the garage and only take out for the big race and not just for a run around town, unless nothing else can get you there.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that countries like China and Russia have no misgivings about using cyber warfare as a highly effective and inexpensive means to obtain information and improve their national superiority.
As cyber security expert Joseph Steinberg explains in Why the U.S. is losing the cyber war against China, "spying via computer systems … poses far fewer risks than its physical-world counterpart. Deniability is always an option; no highly trained people are at risk; and there is far less of a threat of agents defecting, betraying their sponsor or becoming double agents.”
Fortunately, it looks like the U.S. is finally catching on and making some of the necessary changes to protect our nation from cyber-attacks.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that he is working with our military leaders to create a new defense strategy that will save trillions of dollars and ensure that we are safe from foreign threats — both on the ground and in the virtual arena. He said, “[t]o stay one step ahead of our adversaries, I have already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing danger of cyber-threats.”
This is a good first step. If we are going to defend ourselves from 21st century threats, we need to change the way we look at cyber warfare. We must educate Americans about the real dangers that cyber-attacks pose and encourage our students to study computer science to create a new generation of professionals who know how to safeguard our nation against cyber terrorism.
In addition, we must not be afraid to use our intelligence and technology to our advantage. If America wants to remain a super power and maintain a strong geopolitical standing, we must use every weapon at our disposal to protect ourselves.
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