- - Sunday, February 19, 2017

If you thought the 2016 presidential election was an orgy of cyberhacking of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, of the Democratic Party computers being trawled through, and of fake news stories about Donald Trump’s hijinks in Russia, you are right. But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The bad news is that from now on we are going to see an exponential rise in cybervandalism of all kinds and not just in America but throughout the world. Hacking, it seems, has become a game that anyone can play. The most immediate problem is that the people charged with protecting us are distracted by the wrong threats and are wasting the opportunities to — you should pardon the expression — build a wall designed to keep out the cybervandals.

No fewer than three Senate committees have begun probes into what everyone already knows — that Russian intelligence agencies broke into the fringes of last autumn’s election campaigns. Not a single American’s vote was changed but the idea that foreigners could meddle in our political system the same way our spy services meddle in theirs had our lawmakers harrumphing in outrage.

Yet both Senate and House members appeared to go deaf recently when no less an authority of cyberwarfare, Adm. Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency — our telecom, space satellite intelligence agency — warned a Congressional ommittee that the Russians and other foreign spy agencies will be joined by increasingly adept organized criminals and terrorists.

Adm. Rogers warned that the cybertargets will increasingly shift from political party organizations and spread to federal and state government agencies. But other authorities on cyber warfare warn that banks, credit card companies and other global market firms offer more tempting targets. The vulnerability comes from a number of problems. The NSA, for example has some of the technology to checkmate hackers but not the legislative mandate. The Department of Homeland Security which has the mandate, lacks the technology. Worse, all 17 U.S. intel organizations are prisoners of Congress’ failure to pass timely annual budgets. Agency heads are hamstrung by continuing fund votes that tie them to last year’s money levels. You can’t plan long-term cyber counterstrategies that way. And when it takes on average three months for a retailer like Target to spot an intrusion, think how long it must take a Washington agency like the Social Security Administration to run security. And how long does it take your credit card company or bank?

That got me thinking and I called a longtime source. Hitesh Sheth is the CEO of one of the leading cyber-intrusion tech firms, Vectra Networks, out in San Jose, California. Not surprisingly, he was even gloomier than Adm. Rogers. He told me that cybersecurity vandalism is no longer the monopoly of a few kooks in basements or major power intelligence agencies like the Russians, Chinese or Israelis. And America is no longer the main target.

Until recently most cyber hacking has targeted corporate data and U.S. corporations accounted for nearly two thirds of reported cyber hacking raids — banks, mass retail firms such as department chains, fast food restaurants and hotels — used to be the main targets. That was where the ransomware blackmail money could be found and where consumer credit card data could be pilfered. Britain, by the way was a distant second place target.

But Mr. Sheth says Europe is the next arena in sight this year, Again, as with the U.S. the targets will be political as well as government and corporate data bases. French and German elections scheduled for this year are obvious targets for hacking and fake news attacks. Britain’s Brexit move out of the European Community will also make corporations changing contracts with European buyers and bankers more vulnerable. But it won’t be just Moscow or Beijing taking aim, Islamic terrorists are also proving adept at penetrating news sites and gathering data and money sources as well. And other, smaller nations can be expected to launch cyber-attacks against neighbors and big power targets alike as what Mr. Sheth called “the asymmetric battlefront of global power.” This points to another vulnerability — manpower. He notes that there are currently one million cyber security jobs around the world going begging for lack of qualified personnel — 200,000 job slots in America alone. While global companies and government agencies scramble to train and place the new generation of cyber warriors, the hackers are likely to run free for the foreseeable future. They used to say that generals too often tried to fight the previous war a second time. Washington, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, remains bogged down with the unsolved issues of the last eight years of drift — immigrants of all types, a staggering health care system, a battered defense establishment — while the new crisis is upon us. Is anyone paying attention?

• James Srodes is a veteran Washington author-journalist and former bureau chief for both Forbes and Financial World magazines.

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