Isn’t Russia’s meddling in the US election a ‘Cyber Pearl Harbor’?

by Chris Zappone

For years, politicians and the public have spoken in ominous terms about a so-called “Cyber Pearl Harbor“, an event in which a foreign power or terrorist group stages a crippling attack on US infrastructure that renders the country incapable of functioning.

In 1996, when Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick began assessing the risks posed by hacking to infrastructure she used the term.

“We have not yet had a terrorist cyber attack on the infrastructure. But I think that that is just a matter of time. We do not want to wait for the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” she said, as quoted in Fred Kaplan’s new book .

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Pearl Harbor attack, 1941

Since 1996 the notion of a Cyber Pearl Harbor has become a political talking point in the US.

I can’t think of a more core piece of infrastructure in the United States of America than its constitutional democracy and the integrity of free and fair elections.

What’s happening in the US election is so surprising – the subversion, the manipulation of perceptions online – that US democracy can’t adequately respond. Even the intelligence community is struggling to wake up to it, after years of focusing on China’s economic cyber hacking. Just recognizing the new battlefield of social cyber space is largely uncontested by the US is a challenge.

So in my opinion, this qualifies as the Cyber Pearl Harbor that was first mentioned 20 years ago by policy analysts in Washington.

And the thing about Pearl Harbor attacks is that you just don’t know where they’re coming from. So while US utilities and airline operators are creating redundancies and more resilient defense against hackers, Guccifer 2.0 has stolen information from the DNC and the US political establishment. That information is passed along to a place like WikiLeaks which can repackage them for an audience on the lookout for the perfidy of power.

That message can be mainlined back to mid-America through syndicated radio (thanks to Sean Hannity) and the next thing you know, you have a data stream of misinformation pumping right into the US electoral progress.

The thing about Pearl Harbors, they tend to come out of nowhere.

The foreign government seeking to do the US harm today has correctly identified the leadership and credibility vacuum on the right side of the US political spectrum. It is skillfully exploiting that reality and the post-financial crisis disenchantment more broadly.

If the information war effort against the US election is like the attack on Pearl Harbor, today would be equivalent to the early hours of December 7th, 1941. The sailors and servicemen at Pearl Harbor are rushing out of their quarters and only struggling to understand who is attacking them and the nature of the hostilities.

The nature of the information war against the US is so radically different from old style war, though, it’s as if the pilots flying the zeros are in many cases Americans themselves, duped into an activity that damages and undermines their own country and interests.

But this, too, is a big part of the new game the American people find themselves forced to play. Will they wake up soon enough to fight back?  The presidential election is on November 8.

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