There is no such thing as an Digital Pearl Harbor.
On a fundamental level, for something to qualify as an EPH, we would have to have been untouched by offensive action by a belligerent adversary. We would have to ignore the glaring warning indicators, both strategic and tactical, that would lead to the destruction and disruption of so much technical capability that our ability to function as a power of any sort would be dramatically diminished for – in information-age terms – an extended period of time.
Yet every year banks get hacked, the government gets pwned, the digital duct tape holding critical infrastructure together loses its grip . . . and the lights are still on, the nation is still in one piece and there is still a balance in everyone’s accounts. Why? Because in a wartime footing people learn to deal with the damage, the destruction, the interruption and – to coin a phrase – soldier on. Stiff upper lip and all that.
“War” might be too strong a word, but if we are going to draw parallels to conflicts past, we are actually engaged in something more akin to the First Battle of the Marne than we are waiting for Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake: we have been engaged in conflicts in the digital realm for forty-plus years. It has steadily grown against enemies both within and outside of our own institutions, both governmental and private. It’s a war of attrition with aspects of terrorism, insurgency, and plain old criminal motivations. The battles rage daily, but you only really hear about the big ones. Like our most recent shooting war, hundreds of millions may have felt it necessary to engage in a fight, but a tiny fraction of those actually have to bloody themselves. The natural consequence is that everyone else forgets there are people fighting, so headlines that talk of concern over a sneak attack still get press.
War, real war, requires that an adversary do much, much more than turn off the lights or cause tertiary deaths. I don’t think for a second that our status as a world power, or our integrity as a nation, is endangered by a digital attack; unless of course we’re the sort that just rolls over when our nose is bloodied.