THE MAGAZINE

Assessing U.S. Response to Cyberthreat

By Sherry Harowitz

Legislation is required to cut through interagency bureaucracy and provide the U.S. government and the private sector with the tools to thwart cyberattacks.

Huw Price, the Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, wrote earlier this year in The New York Times about the need to focus more attention on potential future risks posed by technology. By that, he explained, he meant catastrophic risks, such as those posed by artificial intelligence advancing computers beyond human control or designer bacteria getting into the hands of terrorists, for example. But it is the current danger posed by cyberthreats to everything from the U.S. electric grid and its banking system to its general economic wellbeing that worries current and former government officials. Former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell is one of those trying to draw attention to the risk of catastrophic harm from cyberattacks. Though he, like others, uses the metaphor of 9-11, he’s not just talking about a single or focused series of attacks. He’s talking about long-term systemic risk.

Speaking at an event hosted by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security, McConnell, who is currently vice chairman at Booz Allen Hamilton, noted that nation states routinely use cyberhacking to steal intellectual property from U.S. companies, which can slowly lead to economic decline. Thus, instead of causing immediate harm by bringing down the electric grid or the banking system, he explains, “it could be catastrophic over 10 to 15 years.”

Whether the attack is sudden or subtle, the big problem the United States faces in trying to defend against the threat isn’t that no one acknowledges the problem. It’s that the various parts of industry and government that need to work together closely to fight it successfully do not have the authority they need nor do they have the right framework within which to coordinate their actions. Despite the talk of better cooperation since 9-11, when it comes to cybersecurity, “we are currently arguing on bureaucratic turf,” McConnell said.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who spoke to the same group, also highlighted the need to overcome agency silos to battle the cyberthreat. She specifically focused on the importance of improving information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement branches of government. But her assessment of progress was more upbeat.

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