I used to think of hackers as young, smart computer nerds with too much time on their hands who enjoyed the challenge of breaking into business, university and government computer systems and perhaps leaving some kind calling card as a proof of their exploits. We also experienced mal ware left by hackers on websites designed to screw up our PC’s or steal our passwords and financial information. These computer criminals caused us to spend large sums of money to buy security software to guard against that threat. Then more recently hackers broke into computer systems of retail businesses and stole the credit card information of hundreds of thousands of their customers. Many of us had to have our credit cards reissued as a result of those break ins. Almost everyday there are also stories of personal financial information being stolen leaving thousands of individuals vulnerable to the identity theft. As a result many have spent countless hours clearing up the debris of their digital lives.
Then the hacking threat rose to another level. Over the last few years countries such as China have organized and financed teams of hackers to break into the computer systems of high tech corporations to steal critical military and company priority information for their own use. Billions of dollars of our countries most closely held technical information has been stolen and is probably now in the hands of Chinese industrial corporations.
Now with cyber attack by a military sponsored North Korean group on the Sony Corporation, hackers are trying to intimidate us and deprive us of our right to free speech. “The Interview” may be a tasteless attempt at comedy, but our right to free speech in this country comes with no quality qualifications. With few legal exceptions, even stupid, insensitive, and racist speech is protected. The real tragedy is that the hackers appear to have won, at least temporarily. After they warned of “9/11 type attacks” (a threat that no one believes North Korea is capable of carrying out), the theater chains ran like scared rabbits and Sony was forced abandon the distribution of the film. This cannot be allowed to stand!
Neither are the terrorist exploits of government sponsored hacker groups necessarily limited to attacks on motion picture companies to stop the dissemination of movies.
It appears that earlier this year a cyber attack by the same North Korean group involved in the Sony incident was responsible for shutting down all of the automated tellers of every bank in South Korean. American computer exerts have been warning that our entire banking systems and stock markets may be similarly vulnerable. Others predict that it might be possible for hackers to shut down our country’s electrical grid and our telephone networks.
There has been a lot of discussion about how businesses and the federal government should vastly improve the security of their computer systems to make them immune to hacking attempts. In theory at least this can be done, but it would be extremely expensive and very difficult to make every computer system completely immune to every type of attack by government funded group of elite hackers. While it is obvious we should move to better protect our computer systems from cyber attacks by foreign governments, I think we need to start thinking of these attacks as cyber warfare. Any country which wages a war with only defensive weapons is doomed to defeat.
When a country prepares for a possible war it is important for it to build up not only its defenses, but also its offensive capacities. There is a lot of truth the old saying that the best defense is often a good offense. If we in this country continue to play only a defensive role in the cyber war currently being waged by counties such as China, North Korea and Iran, and they are allowed to continue to attack with impunity, we are destined to lose. In my opinion we need to build up our offensive cyber warfare capabilities, if for no other reason than to use them as a deterrent.
We have some of the most computer savvy young people in the world and probably some to the best hackers. I would like to see the federal government gather together the best computer minds in the country, provide them with the best equipment available, and form our own cyber defense organization. Their job would be to not only defend American government and business interests from the cyber units of other countries, but also to retaliate for hacking attacks when they occur.
For instance, if a hacking attack on a US government agency or an American corporation were to be tracked back to a Chinese government sponsored hacker group, our cyber warfare group could shut down the servers and computers used to stage the attack. They could also target comparable Chinese government or business computer systems. It is important for other countries to understand that if their cyber units try to break into a US computer system and steal or destroy data, one of their computer systems will experience a similar or worst fate. Only by fighting fire with fire can we make our cyber enemies understand that it is not wise to mess with the United States.
On a smaller scale, our cyber defense force could combat the computer criminals who try to rip us off to make the internet experiences of ordinary people like you are me miserable. We could turn our cadre of computer geniuses loose on those scumbags to shut down the computer servers they use and identify their IP address and physical locations to provide to the local authorities.
Computers are becoming ever more ubiquitous in our every aspect of our lives. We can no longer run our business, our infrastructure, our government, or even our armed forces without them. It is time to bring some of our best talent together to form a force to protect our computer systems.
Post Script: Have you ever had what you think is a great idea only to find that someone else has not only thought of it first, but also has implemented it some time ago. While I was putting the finishing touches on this article this morning, I experienced that feeling. I learned that the US Military already has an organization called the Cyber Command located at Fort Meade, VA made up of unites from all of the branches of our armed forces. Their stated mission is defensive – to protect the military’s computer systems, but it extends to also protecting our country’s critical infrastructure such as our power grids. Apparently its budget has grown lately and now stands at $447 Million a year – almost half of a billion dollars – so it obviously has sufficient resources. It probably wouldn’t be difficult for that organization to assume an offensive mission such as the one I described, but I don’t think that the military would recruit the kind genius free style hackers that would populate a cyber warfare unit I imagined.