Cyber Threats to US National Security

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

While images of terrorism may keep us up at night, the real threat to American national security comes from cyber attacks. This lesson details the commonalities of those threats.

Different Threats

When you think of threats to national security, you probably think of the latest threat out of North Korea or terrorist groups making statements about what they want to do to American civilians. However, if you were to ask people in the know about what they think the biggest threat to national security is, they would all agree that cyber threats that affect networks and the Internet are the biggest concerns that the United States has at this moment. Of course, the threats themselves come from a number of places. When it comes to the Internet, it is knowledge, not numbers, that matter. A small agitator in the suburbs can cause damage, just like a state-sponsored effort from China or Russia. However, there are a few commonalities in what these efforts all seem to want to do.

Gaining Information

In 2013, one of the biggest leaks in world history happened when Edward Snowden published a vast array of documents on WikiLeaks, a site for leaking government data. The released documents provided evidence that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting phone data from millions of Americans and breaking privacy laws. Other documents exposed surveillance of embassies and a continent-wide surveillance program in Latin America. No matter your opinion on this event, I think it is safe to say that many in the government did not want that information released.

A great deal of cyber warfare currently focuses on keeping secret information secret. As we saw in the WikiLeaks scandal, knowledge is power, and policymakers expect all but the finished product to be kept secret. However, it is not just diplomatic cables that are of interest. The military keeps data on its latest active and prototyping machines. Much of this data would be useful to foreign powers in trying to either defeat or replicate American technology. Finally, the personal information of important people is of interest. Spy agencies keep detailed tabs on the health, finances, and personal lives of overseas leaders, and do their best to keep those details of their own leaders secret. Finding out that a Cabinet official has a severe allergy could put him or her at risk. As a result, many try to gain access to these databases.

Disable Infrastructure

In modern military strategy, one of the most important first acts is to take out communications and infrastructure. As recently as twenty years ago, that meant bombing these centers. However, now that everything is online, cyber attacks can render these useless. Imagine the chaos that would result if suddenly the electrical grid of the United States was rendered useless. Or if GPS could not be used to communicate between military units? Needless to say, being able to do this would be of great use during a time of conflict.

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