The Senate must act to protect Americans from cyber crime

The Senate must act to protect Americans from cyber crime
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Cyber criminals stealing private celebrity photos is just the tip of the iceberg. On a daily basis, hackers threaten to devastate our nation’s economy and security. But Senate Democrats don’t seem to understand the magnitude of the problem. For more than a year, the Senate has refused to consider common-sense cybersecurity legislation passed by the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the threat is growing.

 Unfriendly foreign governments launch daily cyberattacks to undermine our national security and steal military and technological secrets. In the case of Iran and North Korea, their goal has been to attack and disable our vulnerable communications, electrical power and other critical systems. Cyber criminals from all over the world hack into our personal computers and commercial and government computer networks. In December, an Eastern European cyber gang hacked U.S. retailer Target’s computer network and stole credit card records for 40 million of its customers. 


It was recently discovered that a Russian crime ring amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion user names and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses. Cyberattacks against U.S. government and private sector networks are growing at an alarming rate. But the full scope of the threat we face has yet to be realized.

 The annual Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas attracts hackers from all over the world. At this year’s conference, participants featured new ways to attack practically every aspect of our lives. The event has been described as a crystal ball for coming threats. This year’s Black Hat presentations included how to steal passwords as they are tapped onto a touch screen device; how to embed viruses into thumb drives that can virtually take over an individual’s personal computer; and how to exploit new “smart” devices to take over TVs, home and office security systems, keyless entry systems for vehicles, home thermostats, medical devices and much, much more.

 Black Hat presenters proudly proclaimed that hacking is no longer the pastime of just a few computer whizzes. It has become a global enterprise for foreign criminal syndicates based in Russia and elsewhere. According to a leading Washington think tank, cybercrime costs the U.S. economy nearly $120 billion per year and growing.

 But no longer are these crimes isolated or temporary. Federal prosecutors report an identity theft service in Vietnam obtained as many as 200 million personal records, including Social Security numbers, credit card data and bank account information. A department store credit card can be easily canceled, but personal credentials like an email address, Social Security number or password can be used for widespread identity theft.

 The Director of National Intelligence recently put the danger of cyberattacks on crucial infrastructure at the top of the list of global threats. While there is no Iron Dome defense against such attacks, there are concrete steps we should take to bolster our defenses and reduce future risks.

 Getting legislation through the Senate and onto the president’s desk should be a top priority. The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act, which passed the House in April 2013 by a vote of 402-16, would increase the security of federal networks and information systems, accelerate research and development (R&D) of new cybersecurity technologies and educate a cybersecurity workforce to protect our country against foreign criminals and rogue nations. 

 Related legislation, the Advancing America’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act, was also approved by the House with similar bipartisan support, and would strengthen 15 different federal agencies’ R&D initiatives in unclassified networking, computing, software and cybersecurity. 

 Without decisive action, cyber crime will continue to escalate. And the stakes will only get higher. We cannot dismiss the threat of a Cyber Pearl Harbor. The bipartisan House bills would go a long way toward improving our cyber defenses. After 16 months of inaction, it’s time for the Senate to act.

Smith has represented Texas’s 21st Congressional District since 1987. He is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.