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For good or ill, cyberspace has evolved into a prime medium for activity and interaction. Shopping, socializing, work, recreation–so many actions that once required physical travel can now be done with the touch on a keyboard or the swipe of a finger. But like any freedom, our ability to navigate the digital realm safely is hardly guaranteed. With the right tools, any object can be stolen, or broken, and data is no exception. If left undefended, the web of digital networks which supports our connected lifestyles can fall victim to theft and disruption.

The threat of online attacks may seem slight when compared to the devastation caused by physical warfare. But juxtaposing the two is misleading, according to Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism at the White House, and author of Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. In Cyber War, Clarke presents digital offensives not as vague shadow-battles fought on immaterial grounds, but a prominent contemporary threat.

Clarke characterizes the internet as a forum for all electronic exchange, including stock trading and credit transactions. Nothing online is immune to digital plundering, argues Clark, not even mundane technologies like sprinkler systems and copiers, as hackers can manipulate internet connections to cause real-world damage.

Clarke also notes that cyber weaponry has already seen use in traditional warfare; it was first deployed by US forces to disrupt enemy communications in the Gulf War. The founding of United States Cyber Command, a specialized military branch, marks the rising threat of any physical war being accompanied by large-scale cyber attacks, where malware and DDoS attacks cripple the virtual systems of combatants and civilians alike.

The threat of total cyber war, and the possibility of a massive assault leveled by adversary nations, or terrorist cells is also explored in ABC journalist Ted Koppel’s Lights Out. Koppel focuses on the very real susceptibility of America’s power grids to a widespread, long term blowout. He notes that federal bureaucracy, coupled with concerns over privacy violations and excessive regulation has resulted in a highly decentralized electrical system. The lack of a truly comprehensive civil defense system, Koppel argues, renders our power grid vulnerable to targeted cyber-assaults and EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) bursts.  

Such small, concentrated attacks have already had an impact, though the outcome wasn’t exactly what Koppel warned of. One might say that power plays more than one central role in our lives; we recently saw attempts to meddle with the distribution of American political power. Those unconvinced of the danger that cyber threats pose need only look to November of 2016 to witness their byproduct. We now know that Russian operatives engaged with American citizens en-masse online. Evidence was found of a divisive cyber campaign to sow discord and sway the Presidential election. We can’t be sure, but it’s far from unimaginable that those efforts influenced our electoral results.