WikiLeaks Foreshadows a Host of Digital Disasters

WikiLeaks Foreshadows a Host of Digital Disasters


Loathsome as he is, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may actually have done the U.S. a favor. In case we still weren’t convinced, it is now beyond clear that the Internet has become a cyber war zone. Among the thousands of embarrassing cables strewn across the internet by WikiLeaks recently were several detailing China’s cyber attack on Google’s computer systems last January. These revelations should squash any remaining skepticism about Beijing’s ability and willingness to use all possible means to outflank the U.S. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

For years evidence has been building that the Chinese have been developing sophisticated programs with which they could probe critical computer systems in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to the US-China Economic and Security Commission established by Congress, records of cyber events tracked to the Chinese go back to 1999, when anger over the mistaken bombing of Beijing’s Belgrade embassy provoked the defacement of numerous U.S. government sites.

In the intervening years, U.S. Nuclear Labs, the Commerce Secretary, our political campaigns, the White House computers, the State Department and NASA have all been hacked by the Chinese. Germany, the UK, New Zealand and Australia have reported cyber attacks from China and, not surprisingly, Taiwan is under endless siege. The Commission, in its recent report to Congress, said “China’s government, the Chinese Communist Party, and Chinese individuals and organizations continue to hack into American computer systems and networks…”

“We are bleeding data, intellectual property,
information, and source code – bit by bit,
and in some cases terabyte by terabyte.”

Though the Chinese are especially aggressive, they are not alone in attacking other countries’ systems and sites. Many in the west applauded this year’s infiltration of a computer worm into Iran’s nuclear program which illuminates a universal threat. FBI Director Robert Mueller detailed that threat in a speech last August to the International Conference on Cyber Security 2010. He said that while terrorists have not yet launched a full-scale cyber attack, they “have executed numerous denial of service attacks and defaced numerous websites.” He described cyber-terrorism as “real and … rapidly expanding.”

While the possibility of our enemies invading a military installation is frightening, the prospect of competitors gaining access to proprietary systems is also alarming. Our businesses are at risk, and it appears that few have taken sufficient steps to protect themselves. According to Mueller, “We are bleeding data, intellectual property, information, and source code – bit by bit, and in some cases terabyte by terabyte.”

Mueller advocates, among other things, greater information sharing by U.S. companies that have been hacked. He acknowledges that the private sector worries that sensitive data will be revealed in the course of an investigation – possibly as damaging as the initial cyber attack – but argues that “disclosure is the exception, and not the rule.”

The issue of internet security in the private sector was addressed early on by President Obama. He described computer intrusions as threatening U.S. competitiveness, saying “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cyber security.” Like Mueller, he advocated public/private partnerships, as well as investing in cutting edge research. Most urgent was his plan to install a cyber czar in the White House, responsible for coordinating the multiple agencies involved in internet oversight. After considerable delay, the post was finally filled at end of 2009 by Howard Schmidt, who then disappeared from view.

He reemerged in March of this year, in an interview with in which he declares “there is no cyberwar”, downplays the impact of hackers and reassures the public that the government will not monitor the internet. Nonetheless Schmidt says, prophetically, that the U.S. government must actively work to bolster its defenses. “We can’t sit there and be waiting for the next intrusion attempts to take place.” Oops.

Last seen a few weeks ago, Schmidt was responding to Facebook questions on a White House webcast kicking off Cybersecurity Awareness Month. He blogs that October “is the time of the year we need to stop and realize all the things we can do collectively to keep ourselves cyber-educated, cyber-smart and cyber-assured.” I bet that has the Chinese squirming.

What should the government be doing? First and foremost, acknowledge the problem and admit that companies in Silicon Valley are not the enemy – but rather our best hope for keeping pace with cyber warriors. Encourage our tech companies – the best in the world – to put their collective energies and talents to work to help us protect our government, our industries and our consumers. President Obama talked about cutting edge research; let’s put our top computer brains to work setting up impregnable defenses and tracking incursions.

This may not be the very best time to let
the cowboys in the Justice Department
out on the range.

Instead, the Obama administration has chosen to attack our tech companies, pressing anti-trust inquiries at IBM and Google, challenging “anti-competitive” hiring practices at Apple, Intel, IBM and IAC/InterActive, investigating Google and Apple for overlapping boards, looking at competition in the wireless industries – at the same time that we are coping with a severe recession and have a dwindling number of companies that are global leaders. This may not be the very best time to let the cowboys in the Justice Department out on the range. It is, at the least, a diversion of management’s energies.

It is beyond ironic that WikiLeaks is itself apparently under cyber attack, suffering a denial of service onslaught. Maybe they could ask the U.S. government – which they so openly despise – for help. After all, China has shut down the site.