This past week a number of United States Government Web sites were hit by a "Distributed Denial of Service" attack. The attack effectively silenced these agencies presence on the World Wide Web. While this is mostly an inconvenience -- since the ability to access a Web site rarely impacts our day-to-day lives, it shows that our systems are vulnerable, and may just represent the tip of the iceberg in the murky world of cyber-attacks.
The attacks in the U.S. seemed to coincide with cyber-attacks against South Korean government sites with North Korea test firing a number of new short to mid-range missiles. As of July 9, the federal government has not publicly attributed these attacks to a country or organized group of hackers. However, it has been reported that the Russian military utilized cyber-attacks in their recent foray into Georgia, and last year the country of Estonia was effectively shut down under the weight of similar attacks. With this in mind, it's easy to see that cyber-space is a new battleground, and understand why it is important that the United States Government take action to address the inherent vulnerabilities that exist in our country's critical infrastructure.
On May 29, President Obama announced the creation of a cyber czar. More importantly, President Obama was wise enough to understand that cybersecurity is not just a national security issue it's also an economic issue. For this reason the new cyber czar will report to both the heads of the NSC and NEC. What may not be understood about the importance of the cyber czar is the fact that the position will serve as the linchpin for many of the administration's major initiatives -- especially in the area of health care reform and global climate change. While health care reform and global climate change are sexy topics, and deserve our government's attention, they are not nearly as important as cybersecurity. This may sound odd, since it probably isn't even on the mind of the average American but consider this -- most of the proposed solutions to both of these issues require the use of information technology to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Digital medical records have been recommended as a panacea for saving money and reducing the cost of health care, but they must remain confidential and be easy to access to be effective. If our cyberspace is not secure, our records will have none of these and doctors and patients will be slow to adopt these new cost saving technologies.
The so-called "smart grid" has been touted as key to cutting green house gasses by helping to reduce the need for more electricity production. Since electric production is highly dependent on fossil fuels that increase carbon emissions, a reduced demand for electricity directly relates to reduced carbon emissions. An updated grid is critical to incorporating solar and wind energy and other low carbon footprint technologies, into the electrical grid. This, too, requires the use of information systems that have integrity and are available 24-hours a day. Without cybersecurity, these systems will simply not be feasible and could lead to massive power outages in our country. In effect, securing our nation's critical information technology infrastructure is vital to solving some of the most hotly debated political issues of our time.
The situation we find ourselves in is analogous to farmers producing a bumper crop but having it rot in the fiedls because they forgot to build the road and buy the trucks to get the food to market. Let's learn from this past weekend's attacks -- we cannot produce wonderful technologies designed to solve real problems without paying attention to the critical infrastructure that enables these new technologies to work. Let's remember that a secure infrastructure, as boring as that may sound, is critical to the future of some of our government's most ambitious projects and the safety of our nation.
Chris "Rocky" Campione is a cyber-security consultant to government and industry. He is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security at the Department of Energy.