Why We Need To Stop Saying Cyberattacks Are An "Existential" Threat

Leaders from Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the FBI and other government agencies warn that the U.S. is vulnerable to cyberattacks that could threaten the country's very existence. But one adviser to the White House argues that such statements exaggerate the danger and distract the government from the actual risks.

In an interview with Inside Cybersecurity, Richard Danzig—who serves on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and was Navy secretary in the Clinton administration—says that raising the specter of an existential threat moves the debate in the wrong direction.

"It gets into a lot of semantic questions—what do we mean about existential and the like?" he says. "Would the U.S. still exist after a cyberattack, even if it were masterfully conducted and massively executed? I think the answer is yes, the U.S. would still exist."

Nonetheless, the e-word gets thrown about quite a bit:

  • The State Department's International Security Advisory Board used the term last month in its "International Cyber Stability" report: "Threats are particularly concerning to countries with a high degree of dependency on cyber infrastructure, including the United States, where the risks are massive and possibly existential."
  • Steven Chabinsky, the deputy assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, delivered a speech warning: "The cyber threat can be an existential threat— meaning it can challenge our country's very existence, or significantly alter our nation's potential."
  • A report published by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board said that "a catastrophic cyberattack on the infrastructure poses an existential threat to the nation."
  • Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has stated, "I view the inevitability of a large-scale cyberattack as an existential threat to our nation."

Danzig, who recently released a study on cybersecurity, is primarily concerned that other countries might seek to deter the U.S. from conducting national security policy:

"The point I try and make is that the kinds of people who might execute an attack like that are not likely to be vandals simply intent on damaging the U.S.," he said. "They are likely to have a particular end in mind and that end is likely to be to keep us from doing certain things in the national security realm, like deploying troops to a place or defending an ally or protecting an interest of ours. And they could do that either by deterring us because the damage would seem so unacceptable to us, or by disabling our capabilities. And my point is that's really the standard: can you prevent some other power from being in a position where they could deter or disable us?"

Adopting such a standard does not involve such an "ambiguous or inflammatory phrase as the word 'existential,'" Danzig said. "I'm trying to move the debate along and to focus it better."