Cyber War Worrywarts

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Defending against an electronic Pearl Harbor / Navy photo

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta whipped up the cyber-threat Friday during his get-acquainted visit to Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Strategic Command. “We could face a cyber attack that could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” he said. Such an attack, Panetta warned, could “take down our power grid system, take down our financial systems in this country, take down our government systems, take down our banking systems. They could virtually paralyze this country. We have to be prepared to deal with that.”

The whole debate over cyber war is getting really interesting. The ratio of scaremongers to calm logic — currently about a 2-to-1 edge in favor of the Jules Verne crowd — is reflected in a trio of major stories on the topic recently.

This is from a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story:

This Code War era is no superpower stare-down; it’s more like Europe in 1938, when the Continent was in chaos and global conflict seemed inevitable.

Here‘s the latest from Vanity Fair (which is where I always turn for the latest in balanced, relevant reporting on national-security matters):

Hackers from many countries have been exfiltrating—that is, stealing—intellectual property from American corporations and the U.S. government on a massive scale, and Chinese hackers are among the main culprits.

So it was a little like being a thirsty man stumbling into an oasis after weeks in the desert to drink the cool water provided by Michael Hirsh in National Journal:

In truth, cyberskeptics abound…These skeptics say that much of the alarm stems from a fear of the unknown rather than from concrete evidence of life-and-death threats. It is, they suggest, a 21st-century version of the medieval mapmakers who would mark the boundaries of the known world and then draw mythical beasts on the other side conveying the message: “Here, there be dragons.”…Critics worry that this fear is only going to create the biggest dragon of all: a permanent military-cyber industrial complex not unlike the one that President Eisenhower warned of at the dawn of the nuclear age…The danger is that the U.S. government will do what it has been arguably doing in spades since 9/11: overreact. Spend too much. Go overboard with surveillance. Crimp and constrain freedoms, this time involving the Internet.

By George, I think Hirsh has nailed it.

Next time there is some cyber hypester on television, pay attention to where his or her paycheck comes from. Nearly all of them work for corporations eager to use their voices as bellows to fan the flames of cyber-attack fears; others work for companies whose job it is to maximize the potential cyber threats so you will buy their software and expertise to defend against them.

But it was a fourth story that actually triggered this post, datelined North Kingstown, R.I. (it’s where I spent part of my youth and, in fact, watched the Blue Angels fly for the first time from the deck of a destroyer tender, docked at the Quonset Point Navy base and captained by our next-door neighbor during the Kennedy Administration):

The ribbon, the scissors, the dignitaries and the new facility being opened Sunday can be seen and touched, but the mission that the Rhode Island National Guard’s 102nd Network Warfare Squadron will perform inside the $5-million facility at Quonset Point is more ethereal: defending the nation’s cyber-warfare capabilities.

The story, from the Providence Journal, goes on to quote a local commander saying that this makes the Rhode Island Air National Guard “a key player in the burgeoning world of cyber-warfare.” His spokesman adds that cyber warfare has “a vastly promising future.”

The story also brings back memories beyond those of the Blue Angels and being served iced tea by Navy stewards. Like attending Mass in a Connecticut Nike missile base after our church burned down and the Nike system was deemed obsolete against the Soviet bomber threat. Or my visit to Nekoma, N.D., to visit the abandoned $25 billion Safeguard missile-defense system, the nation’s first operational missile shield, scrapped after six months’ operation in the mid-1970s.

The “vastly promising future,” then, might seem to belong not so much to those combating real threats, but rather to those who can exaggerate them best.