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OP-ED: Russia’s cyberattack no small thing

Jay Ambrose
Tribune News Service (TNS)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a news conference the White House on September 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump took questions on a variety of topics, including a recent magazine article in The Atlantic accusing him of making disparaging remarks about American soldiers. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

This is the 21st century, so far a frightening age, and we’ve just had an act of modernistic war, a hacking attack through which Russia now knows gobs about our government, such as useful details about our nuclear weapons.

It wasn’t just our top government agencies that got data sucked up for others to peruse, but something like 18,000 computer-using organizations worldwide, including energy producers, technology developers and Fortune 500 biggies.

While no one knows for certain it was the Russians who have been doing this for nine months without detection, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says it almost surely was the Russians. President Donald Trump says it wasn’t, certifying that it was. Trump hasn’t seen it all as a terribly big deal despite worries about possibly disastrous results for the military, the economy, and hundreds of other matters, not the least of it being exactly how our government goes about functioning with Russia tuned in to everything.

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The FBI is investigating and President-elect Joe Biden is planning to strike back. Although some say it could take years to set things right, he is getting set for sensitive negotiations on various topics and Russia has so far not done anything destructive to the computers.

The federal government, which has fruitlessly spent billions to prevent this kind of thing, has itself engaged in cyberattacks to do some spying; in Iran, a cyberattack helped halt weapons development. The government finally learned what was happening through private high-tech outfits that serve us and learned themselves through Russia hitting them.

This cyberattack was not new except in magnitude. We all know about Russians hacking Democratic emails, of course, and, in 2015, the Chinese were able to capture personal information, including Social Security card numbers, on 21.5 million federal employees. President Obama didn’t want to get into a big fuss over this, but did say he was going to quit staying at the New York Waldorf Astoria that had been purchased by the Chinese a year earlier.

It’s not necessarily governments that pull off these shenanigans. Sometimes its independent criminals. But it appears to have been the Chinese government that hacked 500 million guests at Marriott hotels around the world a couple of years ago for whatever reason. And also during the Obama administration, Russia actually hacked White House emails, including some sent and received by Obama.

The Center for Strategic & International Studies lists more than 100 significant cyberattacks around the world in just this year alone. They involved such countries as Iran, Vietnam, Israel, North Korea, Bahrain, Austria, Turkey, Japan, Italy, Germany, Australia, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Ukraine, New Zealand and Norway. By the word “significant,” the center means such incidents as six-months of spying on the German Parliament.

I used the word “war” in the first paragraph, and yes, what we have here is cyber combat in which a nation in some way binds up, hurts and conceivably even destroys a perceived enemy. While there’s an international agreement that no one will respond to a cyberattack with a military attack, cyberattacks or other ways of interfering seriously with computer networks can be as serious as military attacks.

Consider for a moment how China has been developing its space capacities, recently landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. Suppose that someday it destroyed all of our satellites, not that hard. Our society is hugely dependent on satellite communications and the consequences could amount to a kind of shutdown with no quick fix. We need to have a quick fix just as we need vastly improved cyberattack defenses and effective cyberattack offenses.

What this means is that whatever Biden does in response to this latest attack, his administration must spend more on the military, for cyber issues among other matters. I was critical of Trump earlier, but he started a space force and did enlarge a lapsing budget.

— Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.