Few events have crystallized U.S. fears over a cyber catacystrophe, or brought on calls for a strategic response, more than the recent attacks against Google and more than 30 other tech firms.
The company's disclosure in January that it was attacked by China-based hackers -- and its subsequent decision to scale back operations there -- have stoked long-standing fears over the ability of cyber adversaries to penetrate commercial and government networks in the U.S.
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If a full-fledged cyber war were to break out, the nation's economy would be hit hard. Banks might not be able function, electricity, water and other utilities could be shut off, air travel would almost certainly be disrupted, and communications would be spotty at best -- in a word, chaos.
Few think that such a war is imminent. But damage has already been done by a slew of cyber attacks that, while well short of cyber war, have still resulted in the theft of terabytes of intellectual property data, trade secrets and classified military and government information. That information is now in the hands of overseas groups, many of which are thought to be state-sponsored.
It's not just data and secrets. cyber thieves have also made off with billions of dollars from U.S companies and banks, and there are growing concerns that cyber attackers are making subtle changes to software source code. That way, they can create permanent windows into a company's operations for future mischief.
An 'existential threat'
Many see the attacks as evidence that the U.S. is already in the midst of an undeclared cyber war, with attacks against government targets estimated to have more than doubled in the past two years. Just last week, a top FBI official called cyber attacks an "existential threat" to the U.S. On Friday, two U.S. senators now pushing cyber security legislation in Congress reiterated those sentiments.