National Security

The US Faces Cyber Threats on Multiple Fronts of Infrastructure

July 12, 2019  • Bishop Garrison

Bishop Garrison is a scholar at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum.

As the technology that supports our society continuously evolves, so have the threats we face from bad actors poised to exploit it. It’s not simply the “grid”, although that is at risk. In fact, Russia is said to have spent years inserting malicious malware into American oil and gas systems that have left many portions of infrastructure vulnerable. As this takes place, there is an ongoing debate over the cyber security threat Huawei may pose to the world’s future 5G network and privacy, and a potential escalation of cyber offensive operations between the United States and Russia, as recent reports indicate the former Soviet nation’s power grid has been infiltrated by U.S. forces. But it goes beyond our hard infrastructure; it’s also our democracy infrastructure, where in recent weeks we’ve seen the rise of deepfakes and cheapfakes, election hacking and engineering, and the risk of foreign entities unduly influencing democratic elections around the world. All of these issues and occurrences highlight that America has yet to properly deal with the vulnerabilities within its electoral process. The country has not created a comprehensive cyber plan across the multiple organizations affected by these problems. And the issues persist while our electoral process remains susceptible to attack. 

The Mueller investigation disclosed intrusions into the county election systems of two Floridian municipalities. Further, the FBI believes the operation allowed foreign operatives to go further and breach the government system of at least one of the counties. Florida has begun to take corrective measures to address this situation that, against the backdrop of the aforementioned challenges we face, seems almost Kafkaesque. Governor DeSantis announced that an investment of an additional $2 million in unspent federal grant fund will be used to address the cyber shortcomings, but in an age of cheap software and unaffiliated hackers what will that money truly amount to? Also, what type of comprehensive response will we see across state and party lines during arguably the most partisan point in our history? As the Senate Majority Leader has blocked election security legislation and the President has stated, and later retracted, his thoughts that he would accept information on political opponents from a foreign source, what can states do to close the gap on the challenges they face? Compounding these ongoing problems, America has yet to understand or tackle the threat that minority communities face from ongoing schemes that target them through social media engineering and information warfare.

The security of all parts of our infrastructure, with particular attention to our election systems, should be a non-partisan issue. Moreover, it’s a problem for all liberal democracies and should be of great concern to NATO, the UN, and other like-minded coalitions. The United States and its allies are faced with a multifaceted, highly complex threat that we are currently not capable to handle or, arguably, fully aware of the scope and depth. Ultimately, we must determine how to bridge political divides in order to ensure all aspects of our infrastructure—and democracy—remain secure and free from foreign influence of any kind.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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