Few events have crystallized U.S. fears over a cyber catastrophe, or brought on calls for a strategic response, more than the recent attacks against Google and more than 30 other tech firms.
The company's disclosure in January that it was attacked by China-based hackers -- and its subsequent decision to scale back operations there -- have stoked long-standing fears over the ability of cyber adversaries to penetrate commercial and government networks in the U.S.
If a full-fledged cyberwar were to break out, the nation's economy would be hit hard. Banks might not be able function, electricity, water and other utilities could be shut off, air travel would almost certainly be disrupted, and communications would be spotty at best -- in a word, chaos.
Few think that such a war is imminent. But damage has already been done by a slew of cyberattacks that, while well short of cyberwar, have still resulted in the theft of terabytes of intellectual property data, trade secrets and classified military and government information. That information is now in the hands of overseas groups, many of which are thought to be state-sponsored.
It's not just data and secrets. Cyberthieves have also made off with billions of dollars from U.S companies and banks, and there are growing concerns that cyberattackers are making subtle changes to software source code. That way, they can create permanent windows into a company's operations for future mischief.
An 'Existential Threat'
Many see the attacks as evidence that the U.S. is already in the midst of an undeclared cyberwar, with attacks against government targets estimated to have more than doubled in the past two years. Just last week, a top FBI official called cyberattacks an "existential threat" to the U.S. On Friday, two U.S. senators now pushing cybersecurity legislation in Congress reiterated those sentiments.
And Mike McConnell the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and director of national intelligence during the Bush administration, recently said in a Washington Post column that the U.S is not only fighting such a war, it's also losing the battle.
That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard, who warned Congress about U.S military and government networks being hit by attacks that appeared to originate from China. The attacks are challenging the military's ability to "operate freely in the cyber commons," he said.
Those views are shared by security experts in both the government and the private sector who see the relentless probing and attacks on U.S agencies and commercial interests as a precursor to something more devastating. The concern is prompting action of sorts in Washington. In just the past month, two major cybersecurity bills have been proposed. One would tie U.S financial aid to a country's willingness to fight cybercrime. The other would strengthen domestic cybersecurity and require the president to work with private industry in responding to a cyber crisis. That's a forgone conclusion, given how much of the nation's cyber infrastructure is in private hands.
A Cybersecurity Ambassador?
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is rumored to be considering the creation of a cybersecurity ambassador for the U.N. That's important, since there's no settled definition of cyberwar, and various nations are already trying to figure out what a cyberwar entails and how it would be declared -- and fought.