The United States is facing a wave of new threats from abroad. Unlike in previous decades, some of the most serious of these threats are cyber-related.
On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats released the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which identifies and evaluates these various threats to the nation.
Here are three key cyber-related takeaways from the report.
1. China and Russia have unprecedented power to target our infrastructure and population.
America’s global rivals, especially China and Russia, are aggressively challenging us economically, socially, and politically—and they’re doing so effectively. Just consider these conclusions from the report:
- “[T]he innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside of the United States as the overall U.S. lead in science and technology shrinks.”
- “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community … .”
- “Moscow is now staging cyber-attack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage U.S. civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis and poses a significant cyber influence threat … .”
- “China has the ability to launch cyber-attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure—such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks—in the United States.
- “U.S. adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes … .”
Note especially that Russia and China are not simply trying to establish the capability to attack our critical infrastructure and to influence our population. The intelligence community states they can undertake those attacks today.
2. Economic health and competitiveness are critical to national security.
The director of national intelligence’s assessment clearly explains that the technology sector is a key battleground in this strategic competition.
- [T]he U.S. economy will be challenged by slower global economic growth and growing threats to U.S. economic competitiveness.”
- “China will continue to use legal, political, and economic levers—such as the lure of Chinese markets—to shape the information environment.”
- “[F]oreign actors [will] increase their efforts to acquire top talent, companies, data, and intellectual property via licit and illicit means.”
Bottom line: The American private sector is now a decisive actor, capability, and battleground in the modern national security context.
3. The age of cyberwarfare is here, and the scale of the threat is outstripping our ability to defend.
In addition to the statements about Russia and China’s current capabilities mentioned above, the Worldwide Threat Assessment reports the following:
- “China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways—to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.”
- “For years, they have conducted cyber espionage to collect intelligence and targeted our critical infrastructure to hold it at risk. They are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave, and decide.”
- “As we connect and integrate billions of new digital devices into our lives and business processes, adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will gain greater insight into and access to our protected information.”
Having served as an intelligence officer for more than 15 years, I can attest that our intelligence community is not prone to hyperbole. They understand very well that their words and analysis shape life-and-death decisions as well as billion-dollar budgets.
As such, we need to heed this report and its conclusions.
In the face of these cyber threats, our nation lacks a coherent cyber doctrine. We need a cyber doctrine that proactively defines U.S. intentions and interests in cyberspace; clearly articulates online actions that we want to encourage, and those that will not be tolerated; and ultimately changes our adversaries’ political calculus so that they no longer think it is worth the risk of provoking the U.S. in the digital domain.
Last year, the director of national intelligence said that the warning lights for our national security are “blinking red.” His Worldwide Threat Assessment makes clear that those lights are still flashing, and may even be on solid red in some instances, when it comes to the threats these adversaries represent.