Over a recent weekend, I found myself with some spare time and decided to pick up “The President Is Missing,” a novel co-written by former President Bill Clinton and seasoned author James Patterson. I had some doubts about the story while reading the early chapters, but the novel, a political thriller published in 2018, turned out to be an incredibly suspenseful page-turner packed with remarkable insights into the American presidency.
While a work of fiction, Clinton and Patterson’s gripping novel sheds light on a real-world danger that threatens our entire country every day: cybersecurity. In the nearly four years that have passed since “The President Is Missing” hit bookshelves, the invisible cyber threat lurking behind our computer screens has only deepened. In a world where living without phones and the internet is virtually impossible, the fictional cyber crisis depicted in the book felt all too realistic. As cyberattacks become increasingly common with technological advances, it’s time our leaders devote more attention to addressing our digital vulnerabilities.
Anyone following the headlines knows that the cyber threat is at the top of the minds of business owners, government officials and everyday Americans around the country. And for good reason. In recent years, cybercriminals have grown increasingly sophisticated, turning to tactics that make attacks harder to detect and mitigate.
A 2020 report from Microsoft focusing on the cyber threat warns of a dramatic “leap in attack sophistication.” Just last year, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, reported an alarming uptick “in sophisticated, high-impact ransomware incidents against critical infrastructure organizations globally.” In the U.S. in 2021, only two of 16 critical infrastructure sectors were left unscathed by cyberattacks, with industries related to defense, emergency services and agriculture all being hit by cybercriminals.
Last May, a massive ransomware attack took a major oil pipeline running along the East Coast offline, leading to headaches and long waits at the gas pump for millions of drivers. The attack, which is believed to be the largest against oil infrastructure in American history, went unresolved for days until the pipeline’s operator — the Colonial Pipeline Company — paid more than $4 million in ransom to the hackers. Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert and researcher, called the closure “a definite alarm bell,” telling Politico the incident was “the most significant, successful attack on energy infrastructure we know of in the United States.” And in recent days, some officials have begun making preparations for possible Russian cyberattacks against the U.S. as tensions over Ukraine soar.
Cyberattacks may often be short-term nuisances that are resolved with little disruption. But in an era where everything is dependent upon technology — from our hospitals, water supply and electrical grid to our banks and schools — the most basic services millions rely on could be compromised on a minute’s notice. A sophisticated, widespread attack launched by cyberterrorists could precipitate massive disruptions, shuttering critical systems and putting millions of people in danger. While this kind of catastrophic scenario is perhaps a bit far-fetched by some measures, the latest moves by attackers on the web demonstrate that America needs to be ready for anything.
A good first step to fortify our cyber defenses would be directing more time and money toward addressing this startling threat. President Joe Biden has already made cybersecurity “a top priority” for his administration, devoting more federal resources to confront cyberattacks. But these increases in funding for cyber defense aren’t enough. Retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, Senior Director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation, wrote that “the government will have to maintain this double-digit growth (in cybersecurity spending) for several years if it is to have the resources it needs to deal with cyber threats.” The U.S. government has over $30 trillion in debt and needs to spend more carefully than ever. But if there’s one priority that needs to be funded generously, it’s cybersecurity. With cyber warfare now a distinct possibility both at home and abroad, it’s imperative America has strong defenses, whether that be on land and sea or in cyberspace.
Congress also has more work to do on confronting the cyber threat. On a recent visit to the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., detailed new legislation he introduced on the Senate floor that would improve the reporting of cyberattacks. If passed, the Strengthening American Cybersecurity Act would “require critical infrastructure owners and operators and civilian federal agencies to report to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) if they experience a substantial cyber-attack,” according to a press release from Peters’s office. Peters — who serves as the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — said these “efforts will significantly bolster and modernize federal cybersecurity as new, serious software vulnerabilities continue to be discovered.” It’s critical Congress passes bills like these if we want to stand strong against the cyber threat and be prepared for any attacks that come our way.
As the digital world continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, ensuring America has what it needs to defend itself in cyberspace is more crucial than ever. Strengthening our cyber defenses must be a top priority as we navigate this emerging threat.
Evan Stern is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com