Fifty years ago, when Tom Lehrer’s hilarious topical humor was being set to music, the notion of World War III was imagined as one consisting of nuclear warheads that could attack any target in about 30 minutes.
After that, it was anybody’s guess. As a guide told my family during a tour of an old missile silo in the Arizona desert, once the command was given to launch, the men in charge of a silo were to subsist on available food storage for a month or so. Then, if they had heard nothing, they were to venture aboveground to see what was left of the world.
Make no mistake, such a threat still exists, although many of the old Cold War missile silos dotting the land have been
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deactivated and filled with dirt. But it would be interesting to hear the songs Lehrer, now in his 80s, could write today about warfare conducted by people in their pajamas wielding computer mice and keyboards.
The year that is passing has not been a kind one for personal financial responsibility. Sure, the U.S. economy is humming along. The Dow seems to be setting record after record as the new year approaches, and unemployment is at 5.8 percent nationally and falling.
But as the year ends, the office supply chain Staples has confirmed a data breach that compromised 1.16 million credit and debit cards used by customers at 119 stores across 35 states. The company also said criminals appear to have used this information already for fraud and other mischief.
Ah, for days of auld lang syne, when nuclear Armageddon was our only concern.
The Staples news, of course, comes on the heels of a growing list of similar breaches involving retail heavyweights such as Target, Neiman Marcus and others. It ended a year in which JPMorgan came under attack by hackers who bypassed the bank’s filters and might have caused all kinds of mischief if not discovered by accident on a site used to register runners for a charity race the bank sponsored.
It is difficult to be unassailably prudent and responsible in a world that has migrated to an infrastructure so vulnerable the average person can do little to protect against theft.
But the year’s cyber security crescendo was the shot across the bow delivered by (according to U.S. government officials) someone in North Korea — a nation not known for its computer-programming prowess. The target was Sony Corp., and its new movie billed as a comic take on the fictional assassination of North Korea’s leader.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and former House speaker Newt Gingrich were quick to call this an act of war. President Obama tried to tamp such rhetoric, calling it instead an act of “cyber vandalism,” but he vowed to retaliate in an unspecified way.
A few days later, North Korea’s Internet mysteriously crashed for several hours.
The truth is cyber attacks are a serious new tactic that, as an official from the Center for a New American Security told Fortune.com, is cheaper “and far more accessible to these small nation-states” than conventional weapons.
The Pentagon not only is aware of this, it has an estimated $5.1 billion cyber warfare budget for 2015, according to the Washington Times. Some believe the U.S. was behind a computer attack against Iran’s nuclear program in 2012.
The fear is that the next successful attack will be against the United States’ vulnerable power grid, or that someone will drain a major bank of its funds. South Korea recent conducted cyber-war drills after someone stole online data containing nuclear power plant designs. If this isn’t really a war, there sure are a lot of shots being fired.
None of which offers much cheer as we welcome 2015 on social media. You may want to tweet your mother that you’ll look for her when the war is over, a mouse click or two from now.