Cyber Crime

A Nation At Risk

We have an understandable tendency to wax eloquent about the marvels of modern technology and its capacity to transform our lives in marvelous new ways. But there is a sobering downside to this technological revolution and it was vividly on display recently when the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) went dark for four hours, bringing our most important stock exchange to a halt; United Airlines, one of our big four carriers, stopped functioning for two hours, leading to hundreds of cancelled flights and thousands of stranded passengers fuming in endless lines; and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Uncle Sam's HR department, announced that its data base had been breached and personal information about more than 20 million people had been hijacked.

If all that weren't bad enough, the latest news is that the Ashley Madison assignation service which supposedly facilitates illicit affairs between consenting adults has been hacked. Presumably anyone who went looking for love on that website is now fodder for the tabloids.

We were told the problems as the NYSE and United Airlines were technical glitches, not the result of hacking or foreign intrigue, but I was not reassured. Whether through glitches or hacking, we are vulnerable to mysterious electronic devices that did not even exist a generation or two ago. We live and work through our desktop computers and smart phones. We buy and sell online all the time. But every time we make a transaction in cyberspace, we run the risk of our credit card numbers and other personal information ending up in the wrong hands. Glitch or hacker, anytime something goes wrong we are vulnerable.

And there's not much point in calling the cops. Our diffuse array of some 40,000 law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to deal with cybercrime and often reluctant to share information about investigations. The Obama Administration has told government agencies to collaborate with the private sector to respond to the cyber threat, but legislation is needed and Congress remains inoperative. In sum, the Internet is a chaotic Wild West show where bad guys are running amok with scant likelihood of detection and incarceration.

We can never completely assure cybersecurity, but if we sit around waiting to be victimized, sooner or later we will be. The NYSE could have avoided its embarrassing snafu through the simple expedient of having a backup system in place, and the same is true of United Airlines. OPM had been told repeatedly that its computer system was out of date, but did nothing about it. Such complacency invites disaster. Any business or government agency that possesses sensitive financial and personnel information about people must constantly upgrade its technology and offer competitive pay to professionals - including bright young computer nerds and geeks-- to employ the latest cyber defenses.

Fortunately, several leading companies - IBM, Mobileye, Lockheed Martin -- are collaborating with security experts to devise solutions. Security and information security officers focusing on data integrity and security are reporting directly to CEOs and boards of directors. We can never eliminate the risks posed by technology, but we can learn to manage them.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. July 2015