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Opinion: With Ukraine under threat, Americans need to prepare for cyber war

The U.S. has never experienced an all-out war on computers and infrastructure. This could threaten businesses, banks and the health care industry.

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Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close to their positions during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close to their positions during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov advised President Vladimir Putin on Monday to keep talking with the West on Moscow’s security demands, a signal from the Kremlin that it intends to continue diplomatic efforts amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

Russia so far hasn’t used conventional troops or weapons to attack Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t attacked. It has been doing so relentlessly for years using electronic and psychological weapons. 

The United States has been a target of this, as well, especially in regard to disinformation and influence campaigns surrounding elections. But something much worse could be coming.

But now the stakes are higher. Rather than continuing endless partisan wars, Americans should be uniting in an effort to prepare for what might be a serious attack on its electronic infrastructure. This should be given the same sense of urgency that a pending military attack would awaken.

The consequences of a real cyber war are something all Americans should consider.

As Joshua C. Huminski of The Hill wrote on Sunday, the United States hasn’t seen what a real cyber war looks like.

“There have, of course, been cyberattacks, intelligence operations and criminality online, but an open war in cyberspace has not yet happened,” he wrote.

Think along the lines of the 2017 “NotPetya” attack on Ukraine, in which some computers belonging to the financial, business and power grid sectors were wiped clean. Think of massive ransomware attacks, hacking and other mischief that puts financial systems and government at risk. If Russia invaded Ukraine and the United States responded with severe consequences, as President Joe Biden has promised, the next step might be a full-on cyber war. 

Last month, Politico said hackers had disabled more than 70 government websites in Ukraine. Microsoft found malware planted in Ukrainian government systems that could be triggered remotely.

A year ago, a report by the cybersecurity group Proofpointfound a majority of global chief information security officers worldwide saying they were unprepared for such a thing, according to The Hill.

Earlier this week, FBI officials asked companies in the United States to tip them off to “any increased (cyber) activity against Ukraine or U.S. critical infrastructure.” That includes any attacks against financial, health and energy concerns.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also issued a “shields up” alert, recommending all organizations, large and small, “adopt a heightened posture when it comes to cybersecurity and protecting their most critical assets.” 

These threats are a step up from tactics in the past, which were geared toward exacerbating political divisions in the United States. 

Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and an expert on political communication in digital media, uncovered many of these tactics leading up to the 2020 election.

“Russi­a’s trolls preten­ded to be Amer­ican people, includ­ing polit­ical groups and candid­ates,” she wrote for the Brennan Center for Justice. “They tried to sow divi­sion by target­ing both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear, and hostil­ity. Much of their activ­ity seemed designed to discour­age certain people from voting. And they focused on swing states.”

There were some more direct attacks, as well. Russians were believed to have hacked into the Illinois election database in 2020. They were not thought to have altered the vote in any way, but private information may have been stolen from many voters.

None of this seemed to affect a record turnout, but these tactics could seem minor compared to an all-out cyber war. 

The Biden administration is no-doubt aware of these threats. The question is whether it is doing enough, and whether U.S. companies, financial institutions and governments are sufficiently aware and getting ready. Is Washington willing to grant the kind of assistance that would help them prepare? 

In a world where so much of life now depends on the internet and virtual transactions, this is hardly a trivial matter.