Two months ago, Dan Coats, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, compared the cyber terrorist threat from foreign nation-states to the warning signs just ahead of the 9/11 attacks. The all-hands-on deck message, it seems, has gained traction. A potential cyber attack sprung by a U.S. adversary is now more threatening than a physical assault, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a speech at George Washington University earlier this week.
Translated: The U.S. is better prepared to detect and successfully repel a 'physical' terrorist attack like we saw 17 years ago than the country is to withstand hits from sophisticated cyber weaponry. That’s not good, considering the latter is far more likely to occur, and in greater numbers, than the former. It also means we've been looking in all the wrong places for terrorism's specter.
“DHS was founded 15 years ago to prevent another 9/11,” Nielsen reportedly said, according to the Washington Post. “I believe an attack of that magnitude is now more likely to reach us online than on an airplane. Our digital lives are in danger like never before.” The DHS, Nielsen said, must prevent another debilitating “direct attack on our democracy” similar to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Digital Threat Deja Vu
Compare Nielsen’s remarks to those Coats said last July -- “Here we are nearly two decades and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again” -- and you understand how alarming is the very real prospect of cyber war to the country's national security top brass. Along those lines, the DHS is moving toward a broader “counter-threat” posture from the counter-terrorism strategy of its beginnings, Nielsen reportedly said. The goal, she suggested, is to meet hackers and cyber gangsters on as equal footing as possible.
With the 2018 midterm elections literally just around the corner -- and with an eye toward the Presidential election two years hence -- Nielsen encouraged state election officials to create printed records of digital ballots, the Post's report said. “Today, I am calling on every state in the Union to ensure that by the 2020 election, they have redundant, audit-able election systems,” she said. “The best way to do that is with a physical paper trail and effective audits so that Americans can be confident that — no matter what — their vote is counted and counted correctly.”
Nielsen advocated for a position of “relentless resilience” to defend the country’s vital infrastructure. Indeed, “resilience” seems to be a popular term in the U.S.’s cybersecurity lexicon. Last December, President Trump released the National Security Strategy of the United States of America that included a smallish section called Keeping America Safe in the Cyber Era. In it, the words “resilience” and “resilient” are mentioned 11 times, meaning, in government parlance, the “ability to withstand and recover rapidly from deliberate attacks, accidents, natural disasters, as well as unconventional stresses, shocks, and threats to our economy and democratic system.”
Six weeks ago, Nielsen presided over the formal opening of the National Risk Management Center, an information source tasked with coordinating cyber security safeguards between the feds and private sector outfits that own and operate critical infrastructure facilities.