In this post-9/11 world, cyberattacks are a new tool in our enemies’ arsenals, whether at home or abroad. Just last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a potential “cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability.”

More recently, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said “If you think that a critical systems attack that takes down a utility even for a few hours is not serious, just look at what is happening now that Mother Nature has taken out those utilities.” 

Nearly 8 million people were without power for over a week after Sandy, but imagine 100 million plus Americans in the dark for over a month after a cyberattack on the nation’s power grid. Sound scary? It should – because this scenario represents the emerging reality of modern warfare. The enemy no longer has to shoot or bomb us – they can do a lot of damage simply by shutting down our power and banking systems.

It’s not a matter of if, but when a full-fledged cyber-war arrives on our nation’s shores. We’ve already received a taste of things to come. In the private sector, major banks, the stock market, and oil, gas, and telecommunications companies have been hit. Even more attractive targets are our military intelligence and communications satellites, weapons targeting systems, and navigation computers.

Cyberattacks have become a common occurrence, but are not always reported in the media. Yet they are real, and we need to wake up – and wise up – to the cyber threats facing us. In Hawaii alone, a total of 4.4 million computer attacks were inflicted over a 6-month period in 2010 on the networks of about 100 businesses that subscribed to a monitoring service. The big picture: unless we take immediate action, these small-scale cyberattacks will eventually lead to a unified effort to take us down completely.

That’s why we must take cybersecurity seriously – it’s an issue of state and national security. In October 2012, Hawaii had its very first Cyber Security Awareness Month. The theme was “Our Shared Responsibility” – a message echoed on our State Cyber Security website:

“Ultimately, our cyber infrastructure is only as strong as the weakest link.  No individual, business, or government entity is solely responsible for cybersecurity.  Everyone has a role and everyone needs to share the responsibility to secure their part of cyber space and the networks they use.”

I applaud our state government for giving us helpful information on internet safety, but more needs to be done. Cybersecurity goes beyond keeping passwords private, using virus protection software, and protecting children from online predators.  When it comes to state and national security, cybersecurity means defending the security and integrity of important computer networks and data from outside threats. Therefore, we must do everything we can to protect essential computer infrastructure from those who seek to commit espionage, steal sensitive or confidential information, or disrupt vital services.

This much is obvious: the essential services we rely on every day are at risk. Electricity, gas, water, transportation, banking, news media, cell service, 911 emergency response, air traffic control, and civil defense monitoring are all vulnerable. One well-coordinated cyberattack, and they could come to a grinding halt. Less obvious is the need to protect other services that depend on computers and technology. For example, medical devices like pacemakers can be hacked if their wireless transmitters aren’t adequately secured. Given the critical role of computer-controlled systems in sustaining daily life and maintaining state and national security, cybersecurity should take center stage as one of Hawaii’s key priorities.

Though it is unclear how quickly a federal cybersecurity law can be passed, we here in Hawaii should not sit back and twiddle our thumbs, expecting the feds will take care of it.

After all, cybersecurity is “our shared responsibility,” and a few of us intend to introduce legislation in the 2013 Session that will help protect us from the silent digital killers already swarming our islands.

About the author: Representative Gene Ward (R – Hawaii Kai – Kalama Valley) served in Vietnam as a translator-interpreter. He previously served four terms in the state House from 1990-1998 and returned to the legislature in 2006. Prior to his return, he was the Senior Democracy Advisor at the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance. From 2005-2006, as the Peace Corps Country Director in East Timor, he coordinated the humanitarian efforts of 46 Peace Corps volunteers and 18 staff, and oversaw a $1 million budget.

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