Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Calls for National Conversation on Offensive Cyberattacks

Last week, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) suggested the United States federal government should have a national conversation about defining the set of circumstances that would cause the United States to consider an offensive cyberattack.

“Failing to articulate a clear set of expectations about when and where we will respond to cyber attacks is not just bad policy, it’s downright dangerous,” Sen. Warner said at an event in D.C. on Friday.

Warner said Americans should be aware that, despite what one might imagine concerning cyberattacks on American interests, waiting until a sizable disaster to occur before taking action is a misguided approach.

“The true cost of our cyber vulnerabilities and the cost of those attacks won’t come with a single event, they will be gradual and accumulating,” Warner said. “Our personal, corporate and government data is being bled from every network every day. Our faith in our institutions and our tolerance for one another is being eroded by misinformation. This is leaving us exposed as individuals, and vulnerable as a country.”

Specifically, Warner argued, a major cyberattack might not necessarily look similar to a major terrorist attack, for example, which could cause some to feel a false sense of security concerning the threats posed by cyber operations against the U.S.

“People keep warning of a digital Pearl Harbor or a digital 9/11, as if there will be a single act that will wake the country up and make us take action on these issues. But we’re already living those events on a daily basis,” Warner said. “Look at the 2017 NotPetya attack. In the United States, we treated that as a one-day news story. The truth is the cost was more than $10 billion. It was the most costly and devastating cybersecurity attack in modern history, but most Americans have no idea it even occurred.”

Warner expressed concerns that the United States already risked being outpaced by other nations, particularly China and Russia, whose cyber efforts have become regular global news fodder in recent years. Moreover, the results these countries have seen have come from relatively modest investments in cyber capabilities.

“If you add up all the money Russia spent interfering in our elections in 2016, all they spent in the French elections in 2017 and the cost of spending in the Brexit election,  it’s less than the cost of one F-35 airplane. It’s both an effective methodology and it’s also remarkably cheap,” he said. “The same is true in China, which spends a disproportionate amount on cyber and misinformation and disinformation. The frightening thing to me is even with delta between what we spend on our defense budget and what China spends – that $500 billion – they are investing in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and a whole host of other 21st century technologies where China hopes not to simply be our peer, but to actually lead the world. And they’re starting to outpace us in some of those investments by orders of magnitude.”

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