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Fran Koster: Too many fighting wrong enemy

By Fran Koster

The electronic environment that manages our economy and life support systems is being attacked by Russia as you read this.

When the Japanese military attacked our armed forces at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, our entire population was outraged and quickly mobilized to fight back. An estimated 97% of our population wanted a declaration of war.    

Last month, 79 years after Pearl Harbor, America was informed that for over a year Russia has been conducting a coordinated digital attack on the electronic networks and computers that support our defense and enable the delivery of our basic life support systems of food, energy, water and money.

Evidence of the success of this attack has been discovered in the computer systems of the Departments of Treasury, State, Commerce, Homeland Security, the Pentagon and the Energy Department, including the nuclear weapons agency. An additional 18,000 government and private networks have also been, and continue to be, penetrated.

The military’s Cyber Command, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security were unaware of the ongoing attack for months, and were shocked when it was discovered.

Where is the public outcry?

The clearest summary of the situation so far by political leadership was made by Sen. Mitt Romney. Last week when he said: “They (the Russians) potentially have the capacity to cripple us economically. They went to our businesses. They have the potential to also cripple us with regards to our water and electricity and so forth …. They don’t need rockets to take those things out.”

We do not have a national defense force against cyberattack. Instead, much of the defense is left to individual states and private companies. This is stunning — imagine if during World War II each state had to defend itself.

Consider what Russia did in 2015 when they penetrated the digital environment of Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. During a decade long conflict over land and natural resources which had already killed more than 10,000 Ukrainians, Russia initiated a cyberattack on Kiev during the 2015 winter and shut off all power. They repeated attacks on state institutions some 6,500 times in 2016. There were human casualties, and many damaged businesses.

Many cyber experts consider Ukraine as a Russian test bed for much larger assaults elsewhere.

This raises a lot of tricky questions about who can fight back, and against whom. We often think of governments going to war against other governments. That is obsolete thinking in cyber warfare when a government attacks something like Kiev’s electric system.

In the cyber world, there is the thin line between defense and offense. Organizations that are being attacked can go into defensive mode and then repair/rebuild. Or they can also attempt to figure out who is harming them, and try to stop it by retaliation. This creates the specter of a private company defending itself by attacking a nation state — for example, Duke Power attacking Russia to prevent power outages in North Carolina.

President Biden’s administration will have to resolve the debate about the role of our government in protecting the digital environments of private companies.

Some people consider government supervision of private computer networks an unwarranted expansion of government powers, while others point out that, without a partnership between private organizations and government, our entire economy and life support systems could be devastated.

Currently, nine out of every 10 federal taxpayer dollars being spent on digital defense of our military organizations. The other dollar is spent trying to protect the entire rest of our economy — including our state governments, private sector electric- and natural gas-delivery systems, local water supplies and networks such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and Veterans Affairs.

How we resolve the tensions between supporting a strong military and defense establishment while also avoiding government regulations of private business will be a national challenge. The bottom line is that The United States needs to have both a robust and inclusive system of defense against such attacks, and a clear policy about how to behave, either to stop impending attacks or in retaliation.

In order to respond to this challenge, our divided nation must come together. Too many of us are fighting the wrong enemy.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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