Is this the year everybody gets hacked?


View Photo Gallery: Two decades after the first warnings about “hackers,” the threat has only grown with individuals, companies and even nations at risk. Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. answers six questions about personal and national vulnerability.

What was once just an annoyance has turned into something much more serious. Not only have some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley — Apple, Facebook and Twitter — reported being hacked by third-parties this year, it now appears that almost all of Washington has been hacked at one time or another by Chinese cyberspies. And, most discouragingly, these do not appear to be isolated, one-time hacks - according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, these intrusions are part of a concerted, strategic effort by the Chinese to hack into our nation’s leading corporations, think tanks, newspapers and government agencies.

So, let’s call a spade a spade. We’re very close to being pulled into the world’s first cyber-war and, right now, the Chinese appear to have the upper hand.

If this were the nuclear age, we’d probably be on DEFCON 3 by now, ready to scramble our jets anywhere in the world within 15 minutes to counter the threat. Unfortunately, it's a bit more difficult to discern exactly what comprises a cyber-attack from what comprises a nuclear attack. When an addled dictator in North Korea pushes the nuclear button, the world knows. But what about a cyber-attack, which takes place in the realm of digital 1’s and 0’s, hidden behind your computer screen? Not only is it extraordinarily difficult to prove that a cyber-attack has taken place, it’s also extraordinarily difficult to ascertain who, exactly, has been behind the attack.

For now, the Obama Administration appears willing to couch this cyber-war in the language of a trade war. China, the logic goes, is breaking into our nation’s top corporations and government agencies in order to download “trade secrets” and gain an unfair competitive advantage in areas such as high-tech or energy. As such, this theft of trade secrets represents a direct challenge to our nation’s top innovators, who are seeing their intellectual property being ripped off by the Chinese. The problem with this approach is that it’s steeped in the industrial espionage mentality of the Cold War, when “trade secrets” meant something like the new design plan for a Stealth Bomber, and “industrial espionage” meant breaking into an office building or factory late at night.

What today’s spies are after, as the Post’s Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima write, is something entirely different — they are looking to understand the decision-making process at the highest levels of government, and to understand the Six Degrees of Separation between the moguls of Silicon Valley and the policy makers in Washington. They are looking for early warning of potential policy changes as well as the logic that went into these changes. In short, they are looking for a "map [of] how power is exercised in Washington."

Which is why, at the end of the day, technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are so attractive to Chinese hackers. Now that more than 1 billion people across the world are connected to Facebook, now that trending topics on Twitter have the potential to become the next day’s news stories, now that social networks have become the de facto nervous system of our nation, what better places to mine for clues as to possible next steps in Washington or Silicon Valley? This vast social Web is why, unfortunately, this may be the year that everybody gets hacked. We are all vulnerable unless we wake up to the realization that a cyber-war is unlike any other kind of war — trade, conventional, nuclear, terrorism — that we’ve ever fought before.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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