Cyberwarfare: The Next President’s Most Pressing Battleground
The next president to take up residence in the White House will face a challenge more daunting than the 2016 election cycle: cyberwarfare. Cyberattacks have grown more common and more brazen – as evidenced by the recent attempted interference with the American election season. With fresh attacks on the Internet in late October (for which we are still trying to confirm the culprit – although we basically know), and with Russia officially pulling off one of the biggest – if not the biggest – election hack in history, the future of cyberwarfare is now part of daily conversations. A new battleground has been established. Cybersecurity must become a more active component of national defense and policymaking, as well as international collaboration, while reinforcing the public and private partnership at home.
When the U.S. intelligence community declared the Russian government was trying to influence the presidential election through directed hacks, pundits said we are heading back to the Cold War. To the contrary, the cybercrimes proliferating now indicate an active war, one that can’t be won merely by deploying technology. Inauguration day is not too soon to act. For now, we are still treading in the areas of non-physical harm from cyber threats. It’s clear that the 2016 election hacks are influencing voters and possibly swaying votes. The damage is done. However, hacking emails is one thing; stealing highly classified government documents, or hacking a military system or a power plant is quite another. These kinds of attacks could have devastating damage in terms of infrastructure and even human life.
Addressing this will take investment in defense superiority, as well as legislation. For example, amendments to the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 could position the country not only to defend its interests, but also to counter any planned, major attack unleashed on the U.S. or its allies. The president will need to appoint cabinet members, diplomats and others who can create coalitions and build joint defense and attack capabilities that help deter state enemies. Expanding the role of NATO to include cyberwarfare operations and act as a central body for intelligence and counter-attack operations should be among the ideas the next administration explores.
These efforts would address rising cybercrime, as well. This is a lucrative, low-risk business – at least when compared to traditional criminality. Breaking into a bank, cleaning out the vault and taking off in a getaway car are extremely dangerous actions. The cyber equivalents are not. “Virtual” criminals often operate across the border and outside of the reach of the organizations they attack. This should be the catalyst for global agreements to counter cyber-criminality. Cross-border legislation that supports pursuit and prosecution of criminals – as well as the ability to shut down internet services at the service provider level – will be key to this effort.
There are precedents for such international laws. To fight the war on drugs or prosecute war crimes, the U.S. has long coordinated with international courts and legislative bodies. The nation should do so again, now, while so many agree on the urgency of this threat. It’s true that state actors have used cybercrime to steal information in the past, but attacks on Google, Microsoft and Cisco didn’t affect the average U.S. citizen in the same way as October’s blackouts or the hacking of a major political party. However, when the next president addresses cyberwarfare, as he or she must do, the legislation will have the added benefit of helping the business community protect its intellectual property.
Last year, TV5Monde in France was a “victim of piracy unprecedented in the world history of broadcasting.” The global television network suffered a deliberate, complex attempt to permanently wipe its broadcast and internet signals off the face of the earth – an attempt that might have succeeded but for the happy accident of a few engineers working onsite over the weekend, who quickly disconnected compromised servers to avoid even more damage. That was Act One to test the effectiveness of offensive capability of the Russian cyberwar actors. October’s attack revealed a whole new level of ability and sent a clear warning signal to the nation and the world on the scale of some of these capabilities. This could be our Cuban missile crisis – and it needs to be addressed with the same sense of urgency.
Whether state-sponsored or merely state-allowed, cyber criminals represent the next great threat to the U.S. and its allies. The 45th president will need to take decisive action to address this threat from day one, or it will only grow.
Fadi Albatal is senior vice president at Above Security, responsible for marketing, product management and more. He has a master’s degree in computer science from ESIG, Lyon, France.