The Politicians Who Cried 'Cyber Pearl Harbor' Wolf

from the tough-to-believe-them-any-more dept

With all the talk lately about cybersecurity legislation, we've still yet to see anyone lay out an actual scenario for a real "cyber security" threat (or, at least one that goes beyond your everyday malware or corporate espionage, which are covered by existing laws just fine). However, we have heard lots of fear mongering about planes falling from skies and electric grids being shut down -- despite no evidence that there is any such threat (and, if there is, the concern should be focused on why those things are hooked up to the internet in the first place). And, of course, in all this fear mongering, there's one phrase that stands out: "Digital Pearl Harbor," as in, "we must protect ourselves before there's a digital Pearl Harbor."

David Parera, over at FierceGovernmentIT, has done the dirty work of tracing the history of the phrase, and suggesting that these Chicken Littles have been warning about the "imminent" digital Pearl Harbor for many years now.
The earliest public reference appears to be in a June 26, 1996 Daily News article in which CIA Director John Deutch warned that hackers "could launch 'electronic Pearl Harbor' cyber attacks on vital U.S. information systems."

The next month, then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick told the Senate Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations that "we will have a cyber-equivalent of Pearl Harbor at some point, and we do not want to wait for that wake-up call," according to the Armed Forces Newswire Service.

Thereafter the term appears to have gone into a hiatus, apart from some offhand or derivative references to the original sources cited above. But, not to worry, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) used it again in the spring of 1998, being quoted in a March 19 South Bend Tribune article warning that "We have an opportunity to act now before there is a cyber-Pearl Harbor...We must not wait for either the crisis or for the perfect solution to get started."
There's a lot more where that came from, so go hit the link, read it, and be amazed.

Of course, as Parera notes, just because every single one of those fearmongering reports turned out to be false, it's still possible that the "Digital Pearl Harbor" is right around the corner. But, still, it at least raises significant questions of how important it is that we rush through the bill without an explicit explanation of the true threat. Of course, that won't really matter, as everyone's basically playing a giant game of musical chairs, trying to be ready to claim they "called it" should these horrible things ever actually happen.

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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 15 Jun 2012 @ 4:07pm

    Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

    It reminds me of Y2K.


    Me too, but for the opposite reason as you.

    Y2K took a real, readily manageable problem and exaggerated it wildly out of proportion. This cause a small group of people to be able to make a huge amount of money from necessarily terrifying people.

    "Cyber-terrorism" is the same thing.

    At least Y2K didn't have "cyber" in the name. Nothing screams out technological incompetence like "cyber-"anything.

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