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Pipeline hack shows how cyber threats are a real danger to our nation

sachse-chris-col-sigThe Colonial Pipeline, which delivers 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast, shut down last week after a ransomware attack. As our nation continues to respond and react to the series of recent cyber breaches, including, SolarWinds, which affected dozens of companies and government agencies, our nation is at a critical crossroad. We must enact measures to protect our nation’s infrastructure.

School systems, health providers and city agencies have all experienced breaches, which are happening at an increased rate and resulting in situations that could ultimately affect the lives of millions of people. These breaches are not conducted by kids in a basement. These are sophisticated, intentional, coordinated breaches, and our communities have no one to turn to for help.

Additionally, these breaches have become a threat to national security.

We know with SolarWinds that hackers spent up to a year in our systems, similar to the discovery work that occurred prior to 9/11, to learn how they worked and operated. They were caught before they got what they needed, but 150 agencies were at risk for a coordinated attack on our country. The repercussions this could have on our health care systems alone would be catastrophic.

Since much of our nation’s infrastructure is privately owned, federal regulations – much like the regulations of banks with frequent monitoring and audits – are necessary to ensure that these operators are implementing the appropriate measures to ensure the infrastructure is protected.

In many other countries, critical infrastructure is federally protected by military and budget allocations that prioritize security. Private companies, however, will not increase expenditures on nonrevenue- generating goods and services.

Many leaders consider cybersecurity as insurance, not a critical part of operations. Cybersecurity is perceived to provide no value until a breach occurs, therefore businesses limit funding and resources to support it.

With no regulatory mandates, there is no incentive or legal reason to force an increased investment in cybersecurity. In fact, most CEOs are more likely to buy cyber insurance before investing the resources into preventative cybersecurity strategies.

Dire ramifications

Unfortunately, as these hackers become more sophisticated, breaches are more likely to cause long-term damage to a company, or worse, critical infrastructure that could affect the lives of millions of Americans. Breaches are not easy to overcome. They can take days, weeks or months to clean up and the long-term ramifications can be dire, especially for consumers and residents affected.

Cyber attacks can shut down our critical infrastructure, jeopardizing millions of Americans’ access to health care, medication, water, electricity. It could impact the delivery of food, supplies and fuel, as we are seeing with the Colonial Pipeline breach.

According to a report from the U.S. Army War College, “New vulnerabilities and threats evolve every day, and not all individuals and organizations have the means, attention, or wherewithal to keep pace with potential aggressors. Simply put: civilians have trouble defending themselves on the cyber domain and therefore rely on governments to provide security.

“This is not unique to cyber as governments defend civilians in all other domains. The government, through U.S. Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, and Department of Homeland Security needs to strengthen bonds with private industry to develop and promulgate greater security techniques, technologies, and standards to the whole of government and critical sectors of the national and international economy.”

As a nation, we are currently battling Russia and China, whose defense strategy includes a focus on cyber, not just planes and weapons. The U.S. needs to invest in a Cabinet-level cybersecurity leader with funding to defend the country that is on par with the $700 billion spent on traditional weapons. Additionally, Cyber Command needs to be elevated to the same level as the joint chiefs.

Cybersecurity has to be viewed as a legitimate weapon of war and a real threat to our nation. We need to research, monitor and prevent attacks from hackers just as we would those making nuclear weapons.

Chris Sachse is the CEO of Think|Stack, a cybersecurity firm based in Baltimore, vice-chair of the Maryland Governor’s Workforce Development Board, and board director for Cybersecurity Association of Maryland.