The United States faces many threats around the world, but perhaps the newest threat facing the US is that posed by cyber threats, both foreign and domestic. It also might be the area where the US is most vulnerable, as the government currently seems wholly unprepared to deal with the various threats to our financial, military telecommunications, energy, and other important infrastructure elements to the United States. If the US is going to succeed in overcoming its shortcomings in protecting its citizens from cyber-attacks, government will have to address the serious dysfunctions currently plaguing Washington.
The threats to our nation’s technological infrastructure are plentiful. For the past several months, we’ve been reading stories about Chinese hackers penetrating the countries media, banks, and even military records. Three weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on details of how Chinese hackers may have compromised records on advanced weapons systems the US is developing. There’s also the problem of hackers stealing trade secrets of many US companies, as detailed in a report released by Attorney General Eric Holder. The cost to private companies could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars due to secrets stolen by hackers.
The stealing of secrets isn’t the only problem. We of course need to worry about a true cyber-attack that could compromise the electrical grid or some other utility pertinent to everyday life. These attacks could come in the form of an attack over the Internet, or it could come in the form of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Some in Washington, including Congressman Trent Franks, former CIA Director James Woolsey, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and several think tanks, have been concerned with EMPs the effects it could have, for some time. According to Woolsey, an EMP attack from North Korea or Iran could take out 70% of the electric grid. Some estimates say it could take years for the east coast power to come back online, if such an attack were to take place.
There have been more and more calls in Congress to give more government control over our nation’s technological infrastructure. But doing so risks giving too much power to unelected bureaucrats, as the issues involving the NSA and other potential intelligence overreaches clear show. The Obama administration has so far used executive orders to implement the security measures it desires. Critics, rightly so, say that it’s Congress’ role to implement new laws, and issues as broad and important like cybersecurity shouldn’t be left to executive fiat. It’s especially disheartening, because we’re not exactly sure what the government wants to regulate, leaving the cost of such regulations completely unforeseen and unknowable.
The United States needs to implement protections against cyber attacks, but not at the expense of innovation, privacy or consumers. There are many cyber threats facing the US, and a large, overarching bureaucracy is less than equipped to take it on alone. Government should work with the private sector to encourage innovative solutions to our security problems, rather than a top-down, regulation-heavy approach most often favored. Only then can we begin to tackle the deep problems facing the security of our nation’s infrastructure.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.