If you didn’t already know it, the United States is in terrible trouble of being hit by a horrible, crippling cyberattack. The New York Times calls it a “dire threat.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls it the impending “cyber Pearl Harbor.” We don’t even know what the CIA calls it, because, well, it’s the CIA and it’s their job to keep secrets. But it’s probably not good!
Is everybody scared yet? Because you should be. Take it away Mr. Defense Secretary: “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,” Panetta said in a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
This sounds serious, indeed. Derailed trails pouring rivers of toxic chemicals into schoolhouses full of children? Confused computers dumping crates of poisonous snakes into our water supply? Zombies taking over our power supply and going dark right when it’s time for a world-ending brainfeast. (It’s both scarier and more fun if you get a little bit creative with the horrifying outcomes. In truth, there will probably not be snakes in your drinking water or zombies in your power plants. But you get the point.)
It also sounds a little bit unoriginal. Sorry, Mr. Panetta, but President Obama beat you to the punch on this whole death by cyberattack spiel. Back in July, the President published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that had about the same effect. "Across the country trains had derailed, including one carrying industrial chemicals that exploded into a toxic cloud," Obama described the hypothetical nightmare scenario. "Water treatment plants in several states had shut down, contaminating drinking water and causing Americans to fall ill." Still no snakes or zombies, but still pretty scary, right?
Why are you trying to scare us so much, government officials? The answer is actually pretty simple. They’re trying to get a law passed. In July, Obama was stumping for a cybersecurity bill that the Republicans ultimately blocked, and as we start to look ahead at a new Congress taking over in January, Panetta and friends are naturally trying to set the tone. Military officials and politicians have said time and time again that we’re unprepared for a cyberattack, and so it makes sense for concerned leaders to voice their concerns in very, um, concerning ways.
Beyond just convincing people that cyberattacks are scary, the challenge for folks like Panetta is also convincing people that increased cybersecurity does not mean that the government is going to go rooting around in your personal computer files. This is a controversial topic, because certain things said by certain agencies like the NSA give us reason to believe that that’s exactly what new cybersecurity measures will bring.
Never fear. Panetta is here to soothe your concerns. “We're not interested in looking at e-mail, we're not interested in looking at information in computers, I'm not interested in violating rights or liberties of people," he told The Times a couple hours before his Intrepid speech. "But if there is a code, if there's a worm that's being inserted, we need to know when that's happening.” First: That’s what she said. Second: Could you please tell us exactly how you’re going to find out what’s happening then? Because not knowing how the government is fighting back against cyberthreats is often the scariest thing of all.