If this were happening before our eyes--if thousands of foreign agents were physically entering our borders, breaking into brick-and-mortar buildings, and removing or destroying billions of dollars of proprietary information and monetary assets--the government would declare a national emergency. But it is happening largely out of public sight, on computers and computer networks, and so most people are not worried. The press is increasingly filled with scary stories about cyber thefts, cyber attacks, and even cyber war, and Google’s public confrontation with the Chinese raised awareness of the problem. But the cyber menace is still largely invisible to the public, which naturally discounts threats it cannot see, no matter how alarming the headlines.
Yet the threat is not invisible to the government. And the government is alarmed. “This cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation,” President Obama declared in May 2009, before pledging that the protection of “our digital infrastructure” was a national security “priority.” In February, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair warned that “malicious cyber activity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication,” and concluded that America’s digital infrastructure was “severely threatened.” Blair’s predecessor, Michael McConnell, said last year that “a coordinated attack from a remote location by a small group on our electric grid, transportation network, and banking system could create damage as potentially great as a nuclear weapon over time.”