A lot of the debate around President Obama’s cybsersecurity initiative centers on how much of a burden it would be on industry, and how that should be financed. As important as that debate is, it obscures some of the larger issues surrounding cyberwar, cyberterrorism, and cybersecurity in general.
It’s difficult to have any serious policy discussion amongst the fear mongering. Secretary Panetta’s recent comments are just the latest; search the Internet for “cyber 9/11,” “cyber Pearl-Harbor,” “cyber Katrina,” or — my favorite — “cyber Armageddon.”
There’s an enormous amount of money and power that results from pushing cyberwar and cyberterrorism: power within the military, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department; and lucrative government contracts supporting those organizations. As long as cyber remains a prefix that scares, it’ll continue to be used as a bugaboo.
But while scare stories are more movie-plot than actual threat, there are real risks. The government is continually poked and probed in cyberspace, from attackers ranging from kids playing politics to sophisticated national intelligence gathering operations. Hackers can do damage, although nothing like the cyberterrorism rhetoric would lead you to believe. Cybercrime continues to rise, and still poses real risks to those of us who work, shop, and play on the Internet. And cyberdefense needs to be part of our military strategy.
Industry has definitely not done enough to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure, and federal government may need more involvement. This should come as no surprise; the economic externalities in cybersecurity are so great that even the freest free market would fail.
For example, the owner of a chemical plant will protect that plant from cyber attack up to the value of that plant to the owner; the residual risk to the community around the plant will remain. Politics will color how government involvement looks: market incentives, regulation, or outright government takeover of some aspects of cybersecurity.
None of this requires heavy-handed regulation. Over the past few years we’ve heard calls for the military to better control Internet protocols; for the United States to be able to “kill” all or part of the Internet, or to cut itself off from the greater Internet; for increased government surveillance; and for limits on anonymity. All of those would be dangerous, and would make us less secure. The world’s first military cyberweapon, Stuxnet, was used by the United States and Israel against Iran.
In all of this government posturing about cybersecurity, the biggest risk is a cyber-war arms race; and that’s where remarks like Panetta’s lead us. Increased government spending on cyberweapons and cyberdefense, and an increased militarization of cyberspace, is both expensive and destabilizing. Fears lead to weapons buildups, and weapons beg to be used.
I would like to see less fear mongering, and more reasoned discussion about the actual threats and reasonable countermeasures. Pushing the fear button benefits no one.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog. Here are the other essays on the topic.
Posted on October 19, 2012 at 7:45 AM •