National security threats often invoke images of bombs, guns and invading military forces, but one of the most pressing threats to the United States involves none of these things. Instead, powers hostile to the United States and its interests have quietly launched domestic cyberterrorism attacks against U.S. banks and, most recently, against popular American news agencies. Such subtle acts of espionage, and the likelihood that they will only become more damaging, translates into a dire need for Congress to quickly pass legislation that beefs up cybersecurity defenses.
The issue of cybersecurity came to the forefront of national discourse last Wednesday, when The New York Times revealed that they had fallen victim to a four-month-long network security breach that was reported to have originated in China. The initial breach occurred around Oct. 25, 2012, the publication date of an article reporting on the family of the country’s prime minister. This disturbing news was followed by revelations that The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post experienced similar issues within their own networks.
The fact that unfriendly powers are carrying out such breaches against institutions of free speech is unsettling enough, but the threats extend beyond mere invasions of privacy. Large attacks were leveled in September against the online systems of JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and PNC Bank, resulting in at least daylong denials of service.
Such attacks indicate that much more is at stake, with some especially problematic areas being not only economic institutions and tech firms but also power grids for nuclear power plants and water purification systems. “Nation-state attackers will target critical infrastructure networks such as power grids at an unprecedented scale in 2013 . . . These types of attacks could grow more sophisticated, and the slippery slope could lead to the loss of human life,” said Chiranjeev Bordoloi, CEO of security company Top Patch.
According to a CNN interview with James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at least 12 of the world’s largest military powers are working to construct complicated cyberwarfare systems.
It would be no stretch to say that the United States has the most to lose at the hands of these powers if our government continues to put cybersecurity on the backburner.
Though the media’s constant bombardment of the public with images of war-ravaged Afghanistan would suggest otherwise, the events in a remote desert nation do not necessarily pose a greater threat to national security than seemingly less dangerous cyberattacks. The recent infiltrations should remind our legislators of this and prompt them to not only engage in serious discussion with other nations such as China, but also quickly pass legislation that would re-allocate substantial defense resources to building a stronger cyberdefense system.
Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) spoke to the immediacy of the situation in an interview with Politico: “Foreign cyberattackers are targeting every aspect of the American economy every day and Congress needs to act with urgency to protect our national security and our economy,” he said.
With the defense budget and looming sequestration cuts up for debate, Congress needs to take advantage of an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. Instead of continuing partisan bickering on troop withdrawals and timetables, lawmakers must work to pass serious legislation that will provide the tools necessary to combat lurking cyberthreats.
Attacks on public utilities and power plants can create not only inconvenient but dangerous situations for everyday Americans, and the crash of a bank’s computer system can wreak economic havoc. In addition, some of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information could be discretely collected and used against us in unexpected attacks.
Aggression in cyberspace is unfortunately a product of our times, truly illustrating both the magic and terror that modern technology can bring. As such, our leaders must act so that we are prepared for whatever comes our way. Technological capacities will only continue to grow as time passes, and as nations unfriendly to the United States develop economically and politically, the possibility of more serious attacks will only increase. Constructing a stronger defense in U.S. cyberspace is of paramount importance, and waiting longer could only harm the nation — the time for action is now.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in Middle East studies and political science. Her column “Homeland” runs Wednesdays.