America, we have a cybersecurity problem

Computers influence every dimension of our world. We have connected ourselves in every conceivable way, and we are vulnerable in myriad unforeseen ways.

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An IT specialist performs a hacking demonstration at the International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille, France, on June 8.F

An IT specialist performs a hacking demonstration at the International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille, France, on June 8.

Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

Stasis and dysfunction in Congress have consequences that multiply with time. Nowhere is this more glaring than the federal government’s failure to adequately address the growing threat of cybersecurity. 

Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray said China was running a “lavishly resourced hacking program that’s bigger than that of every other major country combined.” China “sees cyber as the pathway to cheat and steal on a massive scale,” he said.

Yet China is only part of the problem. 

The world is now digital, with just about everything online. Computers sit alongside food, air and water as one of the basic elements of human experience. Yet the world forgot something in the process: to protect and secure its cyber assets. Anything online is vulnerable to an array of cyber predators – from nation states, to cyber gangs, to tech-savvy college freshmen.

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The stories make headlines. Cyber criminals shut down a major US fuel pipeline in 2021; North Korea decapitated Sony Pictures in 2014; Wannacry ransomware crippled American companies in 2017; Russia penetrated the US government’s classified networks when it hacked IT company SolarWinds in 2020.

The response to this digital big bang? Merely a whimper: Total spending on cybersecurity is still a small fraction of the cost of cybercrime. And while some legislation and executive orders have addressed cybersecurity, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act remains stalled in Congress. The Act would require organizations to actually implement “reasonable administrative, technical and physical safeguards to protect” Americans’ data. However, the bill lacks the support of key members of Congress, according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the number of cyber attacks keeps growing, and is up 15% in 2021 alone. 

This hardly suffices. Humanity erected a global cyber castle but forgot to build the gate. 

Computers influence every dimension of our world. They help us teach our kids, invent new technologies, conduct medical research, maintain the national defense, create art, play games, share our most public and our most private thoughts. Because we have connected ourselves in every conceivable way we are vulnerable in myriad unforeseen ways. North Korea can shut down our hospitals. Iran can shake down our municipalities. Russia can shock our electoral system. 

The new cyber reality requires a paradigm transformation. For starters, we must recognize the relationship between cyber offense and cyber defense. What is cyber offense? Potentially everything. Every computer, every piece of software, every kid with an interest in computer science and a tendency towards mischief — it all can be weaponized. 

And cyber defense? Cyber defense is merely the people with the foresight and initiative to painstakingly construct a protective infrastructure, brick by brick.

The human impulse to build drove the frenetic race to lay submarine fiber optic cables connecting every continent, produce smartphones fulfilling every consumer desire and construct computer networks exploiting every commercial opportunity. But the human impulse to protect what we’ve built is only now reluctantly gaining steam.

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We must invest as much in protecting and defending our technology as we do in entertaining and enriching ourselves using that technology.

We have a cybersecurity problem. Everything connected to the internet — which is just about everything — is vulnerable. President Joe Biden and Congress must comprehensively address this problem. One necessary step, among others, is to promptly pass the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. 

While a tiny few are screaming about cybersecurity from the rooftops, most Americans naively enjoy, click by click, a digital world that is growing more dangerous every day. 

William Cooper is a writer and the author of the forthcoming book Stress Test: How Donald Trump Still Threatens American Democracy.

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