If you are the type who avoids computers and the internet like the plague, then this may not be for you.  Or, you may have an even more critical need to understand the current situation.  We live, as the ancient Chinese proverb tells us “in interesting times.”  In a very short time, as complex societies go, we have become completely dependent on computers and the internet.  If we could whisk ourselves back to 1985 again, when desktop computers were just becoming used in business and the professions, we might have a chance for a ‘do-over,’ but it’s just too late now.  Few dreamed that the industrialized world would become so incredibly dependent on computers and the internet back then, over just a few short decades.

Experts tell us that the US is uniquely vulnerable to Cyber-Attack.  Both rogue states and non-state actors have sharpened up their computer and internet skills to the point where, if they wanted to attack, we could be looking at a 21stC Pearl Harbor, without the flames, things blowing up and tragic loss of life.

The same experts point, as an example, to the Stuxnet computer virus, possibly inserted by Israel (or the Mossad) into Iran’s nuclear development program, which clobbered their entire nuclear capability, for a while anyway.  This virus was cleverly engineered: “The attackers took great care to make sure that only their designated targets were hit. . . It was a marksman’s job.”

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In the US, we have a great disconnect.  Our government, including military and intelligence agencies, has developed an armada of Cyber-Security and Cyber-Attack capabilities, but most remain top secret.  Meanwhile, our private business sector here in the US, does not have access to most of this government technological expertise – but, it is our private business sector, with it’s overwhelming dependence on computers and the internet, which, according to the experts, is most likely to be Cyber-Attacked.

Have you had a power failure at home or at work recently?  Or, more likely, has your internet ‘gone down,’ leaving you back where we all were in the early 80’s, but in the cyber-connected world of today, basically unable to function in a business-as-usual manner?  If you have been so far spared these agonies, no matter – it is but a matter of time.  When it happens, you realize how dependent we are on our computers and internet and how difficult it is to function without them now in our 21stC inter-connected world of today.

The ugly truth is that we are shockingly unprepared to function without computers and the internet now.  If our electrical grids ‘go down,’ as they did on Thursday, August 14, 2003, just before 4:10 p.m. (EDT) during The Northeast Blackout of 2003, a massive failure and resultant power outage in the US Northeast, Midwest and Ontario, Canada, and they do not come back quickly on line again, our ability to conduct our normal everyday business as we know it, will abruptly end.

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was the second worst – the worst so far was in Brazil on March 11, 1999.  Brazil was at that time experiencing a major economic crisis which put the damper on proper maintenance of their power grid – does this sound familiar?  An estimated 75 to 97 million people were affected there.

Our dearly beloved computers and internet require steady flows of electricity to function.  Those backup boxes you see in many offices can cover for about 20 minutes, some a bit more.  Most of us do not have backup generators like many major hospitals and nuclear power plants – as to the latter, Japan’s Fukushima horrific earthquake and tsunami of a bit more than a year ago, provided a vivid example of what happens when nuclear power plants cannot cool their fuel rods and spent fuel stored onsite.

In this era of austerity and worry about our national debt and spending, and in this election year with the currently grid-locked Congress, we cannot expect that serious Cyber-Security spending to beef up our private businesses’ ability to defend against Cyber-Attack will be a priority, or even on the radar when one lists what we need to spend tax dollars on.  But, we also cannot risk our very weak (hopefully) recovering economy, and what the effects of a Cyber-Attack would be – not in our right minds, we can’t.

Rouge states like Iran and North Korea, and who knows what others, are already well advanced in Cyber-Attack capabilities.  Richard A. Clarke, formerly Special Advisor to the President on cybersecurity, before leaving the Bush administration in 2003 (after 30 years of government service focusing on national security and counter-terrorism) wrote his book Cyber War in 2010 – a great read, worthy of a few sleepless nights.  There, Clarke defined “cyberwarfare” as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.”

But, the kind of hacking and internet mayhem which will wreak havoc on our computers and internet here in the US, also can be done by non-state actors – even teenagers, seeking amusement.  Also, criminal gangs, already deeply involved in the illicit profits to be reaped by identity theft, can reach out from anywhere on the globe right into your home computer or office network, almost at will.  They say that within the first 30 seconds after you turn on your computer, a hacker will have gone through your hard drive to look at what you may have there which is ripe for stealing.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, it took centuries for books to become plentiful.  Imagine if, years after the fact, the discovery was made that all books in print were made with ink which disappears over time!  Today, everything is breathtakingly accelerated.  We had better pay serious attention to these threats to our Cyber-Security now, before it is too late, or we are going to be in for a very rude awakening one fine day when we turn on our computers and find there is no ‘there’ there anymore.