The term “Cyber-Pearl Harbor” conjures up some ridiculous imagery, but the fateful military attack that led the United States full force into World War II is what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta invoked last week to make a case for passing online security bills like the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which has been widely criticized by privacy advocates.
Panetta, during a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, said that America is in a “pre-9/11 moment” and should do everything in its power to secure its “national interests in cyberspace.”
Panetta said that in order to avoid a “Cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability” Congress must pass a bill that enables the Federal government to freely obtain personal online information about Americans from businesses. CISPA, which does just that, was voted down by Congress after complaints from online freedom and privacy advocates who said it violated the 1st and 4th Amendments. The Barack Obama Administration, however, has not ruled out passing the legislation via executive order.
Panetta pinpointed China, Russia and Iran as the nations most likely to launch a damaging cyberattack against the United States. Panetta said (emphasis is the author’s own):
An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.
Panetta also argued that the U.S. government needs the ability to launch offense operations against cyber-actors it deems as threats to national security.