Ask anyone what they think a terrorist attack looks like, and you’ll get something along these lines – a hijacked plane, a suicide bombing, or a school shooting. Our greatest fears are of attacks that we can see, that shock the nation in one swift act of violence. We fear those attacks because the images of them trigger fears in our mind – the big explosions, the bloody bodies, the wreckage of the aftermath. There is, however, a much more devastating type of terrorist attack that does not get nearly enough attention: a cyberattack. These attacks are perpetrated from the shadows. The attacker does not raise a weapon and there is no big boom, but the effects are far more widespread and far more damaging than a physical terrorist attack could ever be.
The easiest way to understand the true potential for destruction that cyberattacks hold is to understand the fundamental motivation behind terrorism. Terrorism, at its core, is a political statement, designed to instill fear in the victim in order to deal a blow to the victim’s ideals. 9/11, for example, was not designed merely to kill thousands, but to destroy the fundamental aspects of America’s identity. The World Trade Center – the core of our economy, the Pentagon – the headquarters of our military, and the Capital (or the White House) – the home of our democracy. Although these attacks were devastating, they were mostly symbolic, and ultimately failed in their goal, as we united as a nation to rebuild our strength.
A cyberattack, although it lacks the symbolism of a physical attack, can deal a much more crippling blow to the American way of life. The U.S. intelligence community has said that Russian state-sponsored hackers both stole documents from an American political institution and worked to distribute fake news online to the American public with the hope of altering the outcome of a presidential election. We can speculate all we want about who would’ve won if this hadn’t happened, but we can’t deny that these actions had an impact on the election. This should terrify all of us, even those who supported the candidate who benefitted from it. We cannot afford to deny the severity of a foreign attack for political reasons. Elections are the core of our democracy, and there’s no more crippling blow to our freedom than a foreign attack undermining our ability to choose a leader.
In November 2014, North Korean hackers perpetrated a crippling cyberattack on Sony Pictures in response to a film satirizing Kim Jong Un’s regime. The hack did severe damage to Sony’s leadership, but it had a much more devastating impact on America as a whole, an impact that most Americans probably didn’t notice. After it was revealed that North Korea was behind the attack, Sony decided to cancel the theatrical release of the film. This set a terrifying precedent – that a cyberattack could scare us into censoring ourselves. Our freedom of speech is one of the bedrock principles of our country, and the fact that North Korean hackers scared us into self-censorship is extremely frightening.
Cyberattacks can get even more dangerous than that. Not only can they undermine our ideals, but, given the reliance that 21st Century America has on technology, a well-executed cyberattack could cripple our infrastructure. In October 2016, a cyberattack was launched that disabled many of the websites that Americans use every day on the East Coast. Millions of people lost access to much of the internet before the infrastructure could recover. The effects were devastating, but it could’ve been much worse. The internet is used not only by consumers, but by banks, hospitals, the military, and many other organizations that are essential for our society to function. A full-scale internet shutdown attack could dismantle our entire economy, leave us without power, and endanger millions of lives.
Even though none of these attacks left any physical damage, the effects are far worse than any bomb could ever be. They have taken down our democratic process, our ability to speak freely, and our infrastructure. While the physical attacks that scare us so much do significant damages to their concentrated targets, a large-scale cyberattack could take out our entire nation in one swift stroke. This threat is greatly ignored by the media and the people because there is no tangible shock factor. There may be no explosion to show on a television screen, but these attacks have the capability to do far worse. As our technology has evolved, so have the threats against us, and we have to be aware of that. We can no longer afford to ignore or deny the severity of these cyberattacks, because in this day and age, the most powerful weapon is not an explosive, but a computer.