Robert Ackerman Jr.
Robert Ackerman Jr. is the founder and a managing director of AllegisCyber, an early-stage cybersecurity venture firm, and a founder of DataTribe, a cybersecurity startup “studio” in metropolitan Washington, D.C.
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With the long battle for the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 firmly underway, more than 20 political hopefuls are talking about spreading the fruits of a solid economy to millions of middle-class Americans who may have missed the good times, implementing Medicare for all to solve financial healthcare pitfalls, and free college education.
One would-be candidate – Jay Inslee, the governor of the state of Washington – is talking almost exclusively about the need to address climate change far more quickly and far more seriously.
But what has not been discussed by any of them, even briefly, is the stunning existential threat to our critical national security and the entire well-being of the U.S. posed by mounting and painful cyber breaches of infrastructure and other targets. If no would-be candidates can acknowledge the significance and magnitude of the cyber threat – let alone put forward a strategy and plan to defend against the threat – it’s hard to take them seriously as prospective national leaders.
I’m hardly the only one with this view. “When we think about existential threats, government has to understand that electricity doesn’t reside in its own silo and that if something happens to (companies like) us, it would have a potentially cataclysmic impact on finance as well,” utility Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning recently told Fox Business.
Specifically, consider just a few examples of what is going on every day:
Election malfeasance. We hear daily outrage about threats to our increasingly digital electoral infrastructure, and yet there is no policy discussion.
Rampant theft of intellectual property. The strength of our economy is based on our ability to innovate, as encapsulated in IP. And yet our economic and military rivals are brazenly stealing this IP with impunity. They take our innovation and weaponize it to challenge U.S. industry leadership and compromise our defense military technologies.
Targeting of critical infrastructure. When most of our infrastructure was built, it was not with security in mind. Our society is dependent upon our infrastructure. What if our phones didn’t work, we couldn’t bank, electrical and gas service was cut off, our planes couldn’t fly and our ports could not function? Massive financing is required to boost security.
Manipulation of privacy by select technology giants. What is, in effect, another sort of breach, is the collection, aggregation and manipulation of our privacy by digital aggregators such as Google and Facebook, which is then further manipulated and stolen by criminals. (Note here: A positive response has been the Federal Trade Commission’s endorsement this month of a $5 billion settlement with Facebook over a long-running probe into its privacy missteps.)
How do we solve these problems? Blatantly dictating solutions would inevitably fail. What we can do successfully is set standards of performance and responsibility, coupled with timelines and severe penalties for failure to perform. There must be accountability –something that sometimes exists in industry (albeit at inadequate levels), but that is wholly missing in government at all levels.
While I care deeply about cybersecurity, I am not naïve about the extreme pressure confronting politicians to score well in polls – a requirement to have a shot at winning their party’s presidential nomination. Arguably, cybersecurity awareness may not fit this bill.
If enhanced cybersecurity is to be injected into the Democratic election agenda, the public must actively promulgate such a step. Supporting an outcry is the irrefutable fact that the signs of risk are flagrant. Earlier this year, Global Risks Report 2019 – published by the World Economic Form – said that the rapid evolution of cyber and technological threats poses one of the most significant dangers to societies around the world.
In the U.S., meanwhile, cybersecurity is now at the forefront of policy discussions and planning for future conflicts. The cyber threat has leveled the playing field in many ways, presenting unique concerns to the U.S. and its allies. Two years ago, the final report of the Department of Defense Science Board Task Force on Cyber Deterrence concluded that cyber capabilities of other nations exceeded U.S. ability to defend systems and said this would remain the case for at least another five to 10 years.
These and other threats manifest themselves through attacks on our digital infrastructure. And as the largest and most digitized economy in the world, we have the most to lose when our infrastructure is comprised. There is no higher priority threat to the U.S. If those who would be our leaders, including Donald Trump, cannot acknowledge such a huge external threat to our security, economy and lifestyle and take steps to resolve it, they have no business vying to become the leader of our nation in 2020.
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