You pretty much have to carry a Medicare card to remember the feeling, the national “omygod” that went off when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik-1. The first man-made satellite to orbit the earth? Wasn’t that supposed to be our job? Wasn’t America supposed to be way ahead of the Russians in science and technology and space?? After October 4, 1957; the post-Sputnik era felt different.
Fast-forward 63 years, two months and five days, to December 9, 2020, the day a cybersecurity firm called FireEye revealed the world’s greatest feat of cyber espionage, a penetration of more than 40 government agencies, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and as many as 18,000 corporate digital networks.
In some cases, the cyber-intrusions began in March, at the executive level of the Treasury Department, maybe June, and investigators are saying the hack may still be functioning and even growing.
Who’s behind it? The prime suspect is Russia’s Foreign Intelligence agency – SVR. Cyberwar? Cutting edge technology? Weren’t those Russian tail lights supposed to be miles behind us. Call that feeling, Sputnik-2.
And get a grip. Sputnik-1 was humbling, but not a strategic game-changer. The little satellite’s signals to Earth lasted only three weeks before its batteries died, and it stayed in orbit for just two more months.
And the great allegedly Russian hack should also be humbling more than frightening. But it does signal that the world has a new form of strategic competition, what the longtime CIA operations star Paul Kolbe called in the New York Times, “an age of perpetual cyberconflict,” and, he added, “the playing field is disturbingly even.”
The politicization and militarization of the competition over satellites and all the technologies associated with them after October 1957, undoubtedly made progress faster and more expensive.
Here’s a safe bet, the hacking revealed in December 2020 will make progress in cyberwarfare – offense and defense – much faster and more expensive. Wait ‘til we get the bill for the security retrofit of America’s public and private digital networks.
Eric Tucker covers national security at the Justice Department and FBI for The Associated Press. He was also a member of AP’s voting coverage/election security team.