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Government officials have warned of the potential for a cyber Pearl Harbor that paralyzes one or more critical components of the country’s public and private infrastructures. In April 2011, a cyber attack crashed 30 servers at a South Korean bank, destroying data and eliminating financial services for several days. If North Korea was responsible for the attack, as South Korean officials have asserted, it demonstrates how one of the world’s most impoverished nation-states can use cyber to successfully attack one of the world’s most prosperous. This would seem to increase the possibility of a digital Pearl Harbor as both rational and rogue state actors acquire cyber warfare capabilities. This conventional thinking could, however, obscure a much greater danger in the near term, one that threatens our economic recovery while feeding on an underground economy.
Noah Shachtman, contributing editor at Wired magazine and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues in a recently published study that the cyber danger better resembles neighborhoods controlled by criminal elements, making it difficult for honest people to live and work there. Cyber crime is fueled in no small part by an underground economy wherein criminals buy and sell the information, tools, and techniques used in cyber crimes.
Government leaders should consider whether the top cyber threat is a digital Pearl Harbor—whatever that means in practical terms—or the high-tech underworld, especially at a time when the American and global economies can ill afford substantial drain from illegal activities. While the responsibilities for dealing with crime and underground economies have traditionally fallen to law enforcement officials, a wider range of government leaders should understand the underground cyber economy. The weapons and tactics created there could be used by amateurs and sophisticated actors to attack public information, services, and infrastructure. Moreover, while law enforcement takes the lead in confronting the underground cyber economy, solutions will likely involve a wider range of public and private-sector groups working together in structures and modalities, most of which do not exist today.