Major cyberattack coming, experts warn

Internet experts predict a major cyberattack will throttle a country in the next decade, costing tens of billions of dollars in damage.

A Pew Research survey released Wednesday polled 1,642 computer scientists, engineers, security experts and government officials asking whether they expected a cyberattack to cause “widespread harm to a nation’s security and capacity to defend itself and its people?”

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Just over 60 percent said yes, predicting billions of dollars in government and industry expenses that would accumulate over time.

U.S. government officials and current and former members of organizations overseeing the Internet’s technical standards were particularly concerned.

“Because it ramps up slowly, it will be accepted as just another cost [probably passed on to taxpayers through government rebuilding subsidies and/or environmental damage], and there will be little motivation for the private sector to defend itself,” said Jeremy Epstein, currently a program director at the National Science Foundation and former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program director of Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace.

Nor is there enough political motivation in the U.S. to bolster defenses, said Epstein, who worked with research firm SRI International at the time of the survey.

“Due to political gridlock and bureaucratic inertia, the government will be unable to defend itself, even if it knows how. The issue is not primarily one of technical capability [although we’re sorely lacking in that department].”

Mike Roberts, a former head of the organization that manages the distribution of Internet Protocol addresses and domain names, said governments are waking up to the issue, but not moving quickly enough.

“Governments are discovering they can’t fake a commitment to security for their own facilities,” he said. “The ObamaCare server fiasco is just one of the more visible examples of politicians believing their own hype about the Net. There ought to be a highly regarded annual award for ‘demonstrated Internet security competence.’”

Herb Lin, a chief scientist at the U.S. National Academies of Science who advises on public policy, expects cyberattacks to take off once they are more effectively paired with physical attacks.

“The combination may cause large-scale damage.”

The Russian government was accused of using such a combination during its 2008 altercation with Georgia. The country allegedly preempted its military invasion with attacks targeting Georgian government websites.

And greater technological capabilities open countries up to more attacks, said Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA.

Cyber targets will soon include "self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, and building infrastructure,” Nall said, pushing for investment in “strong artificial intelligence to monitor and diagnose itself.”

DHS’s Epstein still worried about political desire for such investments.

“The primary issue is a lack of policy/political/economic incentives and willpower to address the problem.”

This story was updated at 10:17 a.m.