We have lived with the threat of nuclear war for 70 years and, these days, that concern only makes headlines on those rare occasions when North Korea’s eccentric dictator threatens to lob a missile toward Seattle. The certainty of annihilating retaliation from the United States has dissuaded any nation with nuclear arms from risking such an attack. As yet, though, the American government has not developed an equally effective deterrent to stop computer hackers on the other side of the world from shutting down our oil pipelines and turning companies like Microsoft into digital hostages.
It is not always easy to determine the origin of such attacks. Most are carried out by shadowy actors who may not be affiliated with any government — at least not officially. U.S. intelligence agencies are reasonably sure that the perpetrators of the ransomware assault that shut down the Colonial Pipeline Company last week and cut off shipments of oil to the East Coast were members of a criminal operation based in Russia. They are also very sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin encourages and protects such cyber pirates because, when he needs some dirty work done, they are keen to oblige their benefactor in the Kremlin.
Sanctions can be imposed, protests can be registered, prosecutions can be sought and reciprocal hack attacks can be carried out, but all those measures have done little to slow the cyber aggression. American companies are not doing enough to protect themselves, and Congress has not done nearly enough to beef up the nation’s cyber defenses.
For now, our industries and our infrastructure remain vulnerable. The next time the lights go out, it may not be the result of stormy winds blowing down power lines. It might, instead, be the work of some wise guy sitting at a computer 10,000 miles away, and he may be in no rush to switch the lights back on.
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