Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

There's nothing virtual about cyber attacks

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Sun October 7, 2012
Bob Greene says as more of our everyday lives become bound to the digital world, we are vulnerable to hackers, cyberattack.
Bob Greene says as more of our everyday lives become bound to the digital world, we are vulnerable to hackers, cyberattack.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Six banks apparently were hacked recently, cutting customer access to money
  • He says for many "cyber" is like "virtual"--intangible, not real. More and more, that's not true
  • He says as aspects of our lives bound to digital world, we're vulnerable to cybercrime
  • Greene: Officials agree we're inadequately protected, and cyberattacks are up. It's real

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- When a group halfway around the world, without setting foot on American soil, can claim responsibility for preventing a man in Wichita, Kansas, or a woman in Shreveport, Louisiana, from gaining online access to his or her own money in the local bank, it would seem to be a pretty big deal. Something to worry about.

That is allegedly what happened in recent weeks, as six big U.S. banks had their websites jammed, one after another, preventing their customers from logging on to their personal or business accounts, and from paying bills online.

The banks affected were Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and PNC. A hacker group, saying it was based in the Middle East, asserted it was behind the cyberattacks; it remains uncertain whether they, or someone else, carried out the attacks.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

And, last week, Politico reported:

"White House Press Secretary Jay Carney downplayed a report that Chinese hackers had infiltrated a secure national security network used to control nuclear codes, saying the perpetrators breached an 'unclassified' system.

"There is 'no indication whatsoever that exfiltration of data' occurred, he told reporters. . . Such attacks, he added, 'are not infrequent.'"

Any time the prefix "cyber" appears in front of another word -- cybercrime; cyberterrorism; cyberwarfare -- it can have the effect of making the concept seem slightly less substantial. It's sort of like when the word "virtual" precedes a standard-issue noun: virtual reality is not reality; a virtual store is distinct from a brick-and-mortar operation.

Opinion: Smartphone of the future will be in your brain

But as we live more and more of our lives online, and as basic needs such as electricity, water supply, transportation and communication depend increasingly on digital commands, the distinction is rapidly disappearing. Disrupt the digital world and you disrupt real lives -- you throw daily existence into uncharted territory.

Guarding against smart phone hackers
Hackers hold data for ransom
White House hit by hackers
Gen. Alexander explains mobile threat

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we were told that there had been ample warning signs that went unheeded. If there ever is a concerted and darkly effective cyberattack on the United States -- one that robs millions of people of baseline necessities -- we won't be able to say that no one told us this might someday happen. We have been told, for years.

In 1997, according to a report in the New York Times that year, a White House commission found that the U.S. was vulnerable to computer-based attacks "upon crucial industries like electrical power, telecommunications, transportation and significant centers of the economy."

The concern appeared to be shared by people on both sides of the political aisle. At a 2004 Senate subcommittee session, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said: "We don't take cyberterrorism as seriously as we should. A terrorist could theoretically use a computer to open up floodgates of a dam, disrupt the operations of an aircraft control tower or shut down the New York Stock Exchange."

Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, at the same hearing, said: "We've seen reports that al Qaeda has explored the possibility of damaging some of our key computer systems, seeking to cripple electric power grids, transportation systems, even financial institutions. Just imagine what chaos would result if a cyberattack were coordinated with a more conventional strike, such as bombing a highly populated area and then tampering with emergency systems to thwart hospitals and first responders caring for wounded civilians."

Opinion: Bias in science holds women back

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, at a speech in San Francisco earlier this year, said: "State-sponsored hackers are patient and calculating. They have the time, the money and the resources to burrow in, and to wait. They may come and go, conducting reconnaissance and exfiltrating bits of seemingly innocuous information -- information that in the aggregate may be of high value."

The Department of Homeland Security operates programs that include the National Cyber Alert System, the National Cyber Response Coordination Group and a security exercise known as Cyber Storm. Yet with all this, most of us -- as thoroughly as we have come to depend upon digital technology -- don't have much of an idea about how it really works.

If your car won't start, you may feel qualified to pop open the hood and try to figure out how to fix it; if your lights go out, you probably know where the fuse box is. Digital outages are more mysterious; when systems go dead, there is a feeling of low-grade helplessness, but usually the confidence that someone, somewhere, is working to bring them back to life.

Thus, the specter of some future cyberattack is troubling precisely because most of us have little sense of how we would individually combat such an incident. Even the terminology is open to dispute. The other afternoon I reached Internet security expert Bruce Schneier in London, where he was attending a conference. I knew he was skeptical about what he considers the inflation of language surrounding computer-based threats, especially terms like "cyber warfare."

Opinion: Dangerous new world of drones

"War is bombs dropping on you," he told me. "War is tanks in your city. War is not your computer being hacked. In any war, there will be a cyberspace component. Wars are fought on all fronts. And cybercrime -- crime -- happens a lot. But that is not war."

Still, as the New York Times reported from Aspen, Colorado, over the summer:

"The top American military official responsible for defending the United States against cyberattacks said Thursday that there had been a 17-fold increase in computer attacks on American infrastructure between 2009 and 2011, initiated by criminal gangs, hackers and other nations.

"The assessment by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads the National Security Agency and also the newly created United States Cyber Command, appears to be the government's first official acknowledgment of the pace at which America's electricity grids, water supplies, computer and cellphone networks and other infrastructure are coming under attack."

Meanwhile, there's the matter of those six major banks, and the customers who couldn't log on to get to their money.

It may all be cyber, but it's starting to feel kind of real.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT