One of the most alarming visions of modern warfare, and one high on the Pentagon’s list of worries, is a catastrophic digital attack. For all we know, it could be heading for us right now.
The prevailing image of full-blown cyberwar resembles a trailer for one of those summer blockbusters where the White House and Brooklyn Bridge explode. Planes would crash in the air; nuclear power plants would melt down. Aging world leaders and army commanders would find their pacemakers hacked. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a few more possibilities in an October 2011 speech: “An aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals,” he said. “They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.” As Panetta described it, we are facing no less than the threat of an eventual “cyber Pearl Harbor.”