- - Monday, June 17, 2019

Americans are more security-conscious than ever. Whether it’s the triggered response of a generation jolted from well-being by the terrorist attacks of September 11, or a natural result of urbanization that is characterized by living cheek to jowl, the yearning for what the college kids call “safe space” is growing.

It’s ironic that venturing into cyberspace, the invisible world that occupies so much time and costs so much money, is like reliving one of those nightmares in which the only available bathroom has no door. Until discretion gets an upgrade, privacy is the exception and thievery is the rule.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection made the admission last week that hackers stole photographs of 100,000 travelers who have crossed the U.S. border recently, and images of their license plates. The breach occurred, according to the Associated Press, when Perceptics, a Tennessee-based subcontractor of license plate readers, transferred the images without government permission to its own database, where it was hacked.

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Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suffered a more expansive breach when it “mistakenly” transferred to a contractor the private information of 2.3 million survivors of 2017 hurricanes and wildfire. These data breaches are indicative of a failure on the part of cybersecurity professionals to safeguard the electronic valuables with which they are entrusted. It’s getting worse by the day.

In 2017, 1,632 data breaches led to the exposure of 198 million public- and private-sector records, reports the Identity Theft Resource Center. Included in the center’s tabulation are incidents in which an individual’s name is exposed along with sensitive information such as Social Security number, driver’s license number, medical records or financial files. Break-ins fell in 2018 to 1,244, but the number of records stolen more than doubled to 447 million. Breaches so far in 2019 have been like a runaway train on a steep hill: 1 million sensitive records exposed in January, 2.4 million in February, 3.6 million in March and 4.5 million in April. All told, almost 1.5 billion records were taken between January 2005 and April 2019.

Other record hacks have been astronomical in their own right. Yahoo lost the names, dates of birth, email addresses and passwords of 3 billion users during a series of hack attacks in 2013 and 2014. Marriott International was penetrated in 2014 and hackers collected personal information of 500 million customers before the breach was discovered in 2018. Equifax was the target of a cyber-attack in 2017 that plundered the personal information of 143 million users.

Stolen records pose headaches for individual consumers, but losses of military secrets threaten national security. An Australian defense subcontractor lost “non-classified” data from the top-line U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter in a 2016 cyber-attack. China, notorious for its ability to burrow into the operations of U.S. defense and collect valuable intellectual property, has a new jet fighter, the J-31, that it displays proudly. Observers notice that the Chinese plane has striking design similarities with the American F-35 fighter. All coincidental, we’re sure.

It’s an inconvenience when consumers suffer the aggravation of putting off purchases while their credit-card issuer rushes them a replacement for a card that was just hacked. It could be disastrous for American warfighters to be confronted by their own weaponry on or above the battlefield. U.S. technology is the envy of the world, but it won’t keep the nation safe when it falls into the hands of thieves.

Congress has a role to play in promoting better cybersecurity for both the government and the private sector. The Cyber Ready Workforce Act, a bipartisan bill that would create a grant program administered by the U.S. Labor Department to support cybersecurity apprentice programs, could attract talent to the industry, which bill backers say currently suffers an annual shortfall of 300,000 workers. The legislation stalled in the House last year and the sponsor, Rep. Jackie Rosen, Nevada Democrat, reintroduced it in May. It deserves a second chance.

The first line of defense against cybercrime, however, must be the consumer, who has the power to punish companies that brush off hack attacks as the cost of doing business. The king of consumers, the federal government, should cut ties with contractors who fail to secure the nation’s hard-won technological advantages. Privacy mustn’t bow to thievery.

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