The number of confirmed cyber attacks reported by federal agencies has skyrocketed over the past six years, from 5,503 in 2006 to 48,562 in 2012. The U.S. Defense Department claims there are 10 million attempted cyber intrusion attempts made against it every single day, as does the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Chinese have hacked the Romney campaign and the Syrians have hacked the Obama campaign. Just about everybody agrees that the cyber threat is going to get worse before it gets better.
So why isn’t cybersecurity a major campaign issue these days for our nation’s politicians?
If you ask politicians, they’ll tell you that cybersecurity doesn’t resonate with voters the way the economy, jobs and controversial social issues do. People will get a lot more worked up about abortion, guns or manufacturing jobs than hackers who take down a government Web site for a few hours. If you ask voters, they’ll tell you that only a handful of Internet-savvy politicians – people such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker — have the right background to understand a wonky topic like cybersecurity and its implications for national security, and that they themselves don’t really understand the topic. Right now, cybersecurity is one of those issues that’s still in the “awareness” phase.
However, cybersecurity’s ability to resonate as a campaign issue at the national level could change soon as more elected officials begin to roll out their own cybersecurity initiatives at the local level. In Los Angeles, for example, newly-elected mayor Eric Garcetti is making cybersecurity a showcase of the city’s infrastructure modernization program. Los Angeles recently created the first-of-its-kind Cyber Intrusion Command Center, designed to protect the city’s public infrastructure — everything from its international airport and harbor to its water supply and grid — from hackers or foreign cyber threats. The new command center is designed to work hand in hand with the FBI and Secret Service to detect threats or possible intrusions and then respond in real-time.
In other cities across America, it’s easy to see how a tough stance on cybersecurity — especially at the mayoral level — could be folded into a candidate’s “tough on crime” platform. In this year’s New York City mayoral election, for example, the one charge against mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio that seemed to stick was that he was somehow soft on crime and would return New York City to the scary days of the 1970s. Now imagine a few cybersecurity ads posted in the New York City subway, alongside those omnipresent “if you see something, say something” ads. That might get a few people talking about cyber threats.
But cybersecurity is not just a security issue, it’s also an economic issue. And that’s where cybersecurity really has the opportunity to raise its national profile. Economic losses from cybercrimes at top companies ultimately impact the ability of municipalities to collect taxes, and that’s especially true in regions that are dependent on the defense industry. In addition, cybersecurity is emerging as a mini-cottage industry of its own when it comes to creating new jobs. Instead of bragging about bringing manufacturing jobs to a region, candidates could be bragging about creating jobs for the next generation of cybersecurity experts.
However, until there is a large-scale cyber attack that threatens the nation’s infrastructure, there is simply not enough momentum for cybersecurity to become a major campaign issue that mobilizes the electorate. You can trot out all the statistics you want about cyber attacks, but how well is that going to play in America’s heartland? Think back to 2012 – how many times did we actually hear about cybersecurity during the presidential campaign? Until now, the topic of cybersecurity has popped up as a potential topic in a handful of debates, but that’s about it.
Cybersecurity is like global terrorism before 2001 – it’s something that percolates in the background until something tragic happens that moves the issue front and center. As voters go to the polls across America Tuesday, many will consider issues such as jobs, economic growth and a candidate’s stance on a specific social issue in deciding how to vote. Few, if any of them, will consider the candidate’s ability to deal with the world’s expanding cyber threats. Fast forward to 2016 and the presidential election, though, and it’s possible to see how cybersecurity could become an important part of a candidate’s stance on national security — especially if “the cyber Pearl Harbor” we keep hearing about actually happens.