6 May 2016

The next national security crisis: We must make plans now to defeat growing cyber threat

By Eric Michael O'Neill 
May 03, 2016 

Working at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), I saw a multitude of attempts by America’s enemies undermine our national security. From terrorism to spies, our nation is always a target of its enemies. One of the newest and most dangerous threats to the country comes in the form of cyber threats, where a single actor with advanced knowledge of computers, networks and cyber security can do immense damage to the nation just by hitting the enter key on their laptop.

It is no secret that our government’s computer systems are under constant attack from hackers in Russia, China and North Korea. Records obtained by USA Today recently revealed that hackers infiltrated the Department of Energy's computer system over 150 times between 2010 and 2014. The DOE is an attractive target for our enemies, as it oversees our power grid and nuclear weapons stockpiles. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

The most concerning attacks will be against our electrical utilities, our transportation network and other critical systems. The technology that guards the critical infrastructure at the center of our lives has been neglected for far too long. The development and effectiveness of malicious cyber weapons like Stuxnet should have been a wake-up call. Stuxnet was a malicious worm that many believe was engineered to undermine Iran’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon. In many ways, we are already engaged in a cyber war – many just don't know it yet.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed legislation designed to upgrade and protect America’s power grid. The bill, the Energy and Policy Modernization Act, includes amendments that give the federal government more ability to protect the power grid from both natural disasters and cyber-attacks.

These are steps in the right direction, but they are just that: steps aimed at specific targets. Cyber threats to our nation go well beyond our electric grid to affect every foundational institution in America, from transportation to banking and healthcare. Legislation such as the bill that passed last week will play an important role in shoring up our defenses. But there is a more systemic issue currently going unaddressed. As the federal government shifts priorities, who will implement these steps? Who will design, build and execute the programs necessary to protect us?

If our current trend continues, the answer to that question will be a foreign-trained worker or no one at all. In America today, there are over six hundred thousand computer science jobs unfilled. By the year 2024 that is expected to surpass one million. We aren’t producing enough computer scientists here at home and there aren’t enough visas available to keep up with current demands, much less the growth that is to come.

That is in part because many of our societal institutions have not yet adapted to these New World demands that our nation is facing. Chief among them is our educational system.

America’s educational curriculum was written in the 1800s and focuses on the core competencies of writing, reading and math. While these are critical skills, it is what is excluded that is out of sync with the realities of the 21st Century—computer science.

Only 25 percent of our K-12 schools even offer computer science learning opportunities. In almost 40 percent of states, computer science credits are not recognized for graduation credits, yet credit for subjects like Latin are recognized. The fact that in 2016 a full three quarters of our schools aren’t even offering this important skill should be a wake-up call to our nation’s leaders.

Even with changes, we won’t suddenly produce the homegrown talent we need to keep pace with future demands. It takes time to change the course of a ship the size of America. That is why beginning with K-12 education is so important. Studies show that students who are exposed at an early age are significantly more likely to pursue computer science in college. Early exposure is important to not only encourage them to pursue it, but prepare them to do so.

Increasing our ability to meet the computer science demands of today and the future should be a national priority. Just as our nation shifted to a war footing in World War II, so we must again adapt to our new national needs. From our governors to our representatives in Congress, all of our leaders have a role to play and a responsibility for charting this new course. Failure to deal with this issue now will only compound the problems going forward and increase our national security risk.

Eric Michael O'Neill is an American former FBI counter-terrorism and counterintelligence operative. He worked and was entitled as an Investigative Specialist with the Special Surveillance Group (SSG) and played a major role in the arrest, conviction, and life imprisonment of FBI agent Robert Hanssen for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

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