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'Cyber Pearl Harbor': Could future cyberattack really be that devastating?

Cyberattacks on critical infrastructure like the power grid ‘could be a cyber Pearl Harbor,’ Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in October. Some others say the concept is overblown.

By Staff writer / December 7, 2012

On the 71st anniversary of "a date which will live in infamy," the United States faces the possibility of an updated digital version of that threat – a "cyber Pearl Harbor."

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That's according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who in an October speech warned of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" threat and the need to bolster America's cyberdefenses. Also, in the 2010 book “Cyber War,” former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke warns of an "electronic Pearl Harbor."

Cyberattacks on US critical infrastructure like the water supply or power grid "could be a cyber Pearl Harbor – an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life," Secretary Panetta argued in his speech. "In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability."

As an imagistic catchphrase, "cyber Pearl Harbor" is an emotionally evocative term for Americans. The Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, killed 2,402 and damaged or sank 18 ships including five battleships, effectively burning its memory into the national psyche.

But could there really be anything in the digital realm as horrific or stunning to the US as the Pearl Harbor bombing today? Or is using that charged phrase just saber rattling to build up defense budgets, as many experts and non-experts contend?

"I do think it's a genuine concern," says Stewart Baker, a lawyer and former senior official at the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. "I'd love to think it's overstated, but that view is supported more by wishful thinking than by analysis. If you judge adversaries by capabilities rather than intent, there's no doubt that anyone with a really strong cyberespionage capability can cause something that will feel like a cyber Pearl Harbor."

Some others aren't so sure that the world is full of big adversaries with substantial cyberespionage capabilities. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine headlined "Panetta's wrong about a cyber 'Pearl Harbor,' " John Arquilla says it's the "wrong metaphor."


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