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The 2021 SolarWinds hack reminded us all just how vulnerable the U.S. might be to a large-scale hacking attack from either a rogue state like North Korea or a group of nefarious hackers based anywhere in the world. It’s not just that the hackers managed to infiltrate some of the nation’s largest corporations and key branches of the federal government, it’s that the hackers also managed to break into mission-critical systems, such as those that control the national power grid. With one flick of a button, presumably, a group of hackers could literally shut off the nation’s lights.
The role of Silicon Valley
And that’s why the biggest Silicon Valley social media companies should play a bigger role in preventing what some defense industry analysts have referred to as a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Any cyber defense is only as good as the weakest link, and as we’ve seen in the past, social media has proven remarkably vulnerable to the world’s hackers. Whether it’s the Russians hacking into national elections and launching elaborate bot programs on Facebook, the Chinese leveraging LinkedIn as a massive corporate espionage tool, or the Chinese exploiting TikTok to spread propaganda on issues like Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s clear that social media has emerged as a new future battleground for global cybersecurity.
This is not hyperbole, either. It’s for good reason that the U.S. military no longer allows its personnel to download or use TikTok, why cyber defense experts now routinely call out Russia, Iran and China as national security threats, and why just about U.S. government agency is now re-evaluating how much of its technology comes from China. Foreign hackers have discovered that social media platforms, by virtue of being so ubiquitous and so accessible, have become effective Trojan horses for delivering malware, deploying sophisticated propaganda campaigns, and changing the thoughts, perceptions and biases of everyday Americans. All it takes is a single phishing campaign targeted on a large national defense contractor, and a foreign nation could be poised to gain access to valuable national security secrets.
Hubris, pride and a false sense of American exceptionalism
The only problem, of course, is that warnings of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” strike many as being the equivalent of online fear porn. The risks of someone using your LinkedIn profile to gain access to classified documents seem outlandish to many. And most Americans would probably scoff at the hacker exploits of a bunch of Middle Eastern terrorists. But here’s the thing – there has been incident after incident involving nations like North Korea and Iran, and even if you don’t buy into the whole “the Russians stole the 2016 election” conspiracy theory, it’s clear that it’s remarkably easy for foreign actors to influence the debate and conversation around politics on social media.
So let’s put aside our hubris, pride and feelings of American exceptionalism. As the New York Times pointed out at the end of last year, “America’s biggest vulnerability” in the cybersecurity realm is actually hubris. We believe that we have the biggest corporations, the smartest hackers, and the most advanced cyber hacking tools. We think, essentially, that we are invulnerable. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s time for America’s biggest social media companies to take on the world’s hackers, and it all starts with an expanded, beefed-up defense that requires all of us to do our part (such as changing passwords frequently and using multi-factor authentication) to help keep our nation safe.