The latest hacking of U.S. government data files, capturing personal information on about 4 million past and present government workers, has predictably stirred outrage. The allegation that the hacking came from China (no published evidence either confirms or refutes this widespread belief) has compounded the anger. We are incensed at the brazenness of the Chinese and embarrassed by our vulnerability. It’s a national scandal.
Or a blessing in disguise.
The same might be said of most, if not all, other hackings. The more hackings there are — and the more harmful they seem to be — the more likely that, at some point, public opinion and political authority will begin to take the threat seriously. They will recognize that hacking, at its worst, can jeopardize the nation’s physical and economic security. The dangers compare with a serious recession or even war.
Until now, the hacking has been at another level. It comes in a variety of forms: the stealing of business information (including, presumably, trade secrets) from U.S. companies; the theft of credit-card and other individual financial information; spying on government and commercial networks.
All of these can involve sizable costs and inconvenience for those directly affected. The victims of identity theft are tortured both financially and psychologically. Companies that lose proprietary information may suffer profit declines. Government agencies that have been penetrated (including the IRS and email systems of the White House and State Department) may lose sensitive personal or policy documents. The well-publicized hacking of Sony Pictures produced an outpouring of embarrassing material.
But none of these intrusions threatens the everyday routines of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Unless they happen to us, cyberattacks are just someone else’s problem or tragedy. They’re the hurricane and the tornado on the evening news or the random shooting in an inner-city neighborhood. They’re unfortunate and perhaps devastating — but isolated.
This may be self-delusion. What we ultimately have to fear from hackers is that they — and this would apply mostly to hostile governments and terrorist groups — will get inside our most sensitive data systems with the intent of causing havoc. They would hijack, destroy or corrupt the data systems that regulate energy, control financial transactions, contain medical records and oversee transportation networks. Everyday life would be disrupted for countless millions.
We don’t know our full vulnerability because these attacks have yet to be mounted on a grand scale. But given the success of lesser hacking, it’s hard to be confident that this most destructive variety is simply the figment of an overactive imagination. This is true cyberwarfare. We need to protect against it and also to stop making more and more systems dependent on the Internet — an act of commercial convenience that, with hindsight, may seem self-destructive.
Until we recognize the threat’s gravity, we need to be constantly reminded. That’s why the relentless hacking may be good for us.
Mr. Samuelson has written about business and economic issues since 1977.