During his Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of state this week, Sen. John Kerry likened foreign hackers to the nuclear weapons of the 21st Century. It's stunning, really. Here's a man who was picked to be America's next top diplomat because of his skills in nuanced language, using words that are boneheaded and reckless.
According to a report in The Huffington Post, Kerry pledged to use diplomacy to avert cyber attacks against the nation’s power grid, transportation system and financial networks. He also said:
“Every day while we sit here right now certain countries are attacking our systems. They are trying to hack into classified information to various agencies of our government. It's threatening to our power grid, it's threatening to our communications and it's threatening to our capacity to respond, and there are people out there who know it."
I'm glad Kerry is aware that there's a cyber threat. But I don't think he really understands the nature of the threat.
Let's start with his comparing of hackers to nukes. Nuclear weapons are built to kill thousands of people and destroy cities to the point where they must be abandoned. The ongoing cyber attacks we're experiencing don't fit that criteria. Yes, knocking out the power grid and/or the Internet would be bad. People like me wouldn't be able to do my job and the economic turmoil would be immense. There could also be risks to human life, especially those whose medical treatment requires electricity.
But you can't compare it to nuclear destruction. The image of mushroom clouds will scare the tar out of people every time. Scaring people is never the way to get better security. Fear leads to abominations like the PATRIOT Act, in which our physical security comes at the expense of our personal liberty.
He's also smoking from a strange pipe if he thinks diplomacy can be an effective tool against hackers. Those who launch cyber attacks work in the shadows and governments don't have much control over their actions. Maybe you can use diplomacy to talk governments into cracking down on hackers within their borders. Maybe you can talk a few countries out of sponsoring such attacks. But all the diplomacy in the world won't stop what's been coming from China and Russia. I don't think those countries could stop the attacks if they truly wanted to.
"It's the modern day, 21st century nuclear weapons equivalent," Kerry said of cyber threats. "We’re going to have to engage in cyber diplomacy and cyber negotiations and try to establish rules of the road that help us cope with this challenge."
Such diplomacy has been a dismal failure so far. If Hillary Clinton couldn't move that needle, I doubt Kerry can.
In the bigger picture, I'm sure Kerry will make a fine secretary of state. But he should leave the cyber threat to agencies that are better equipped to deal with it. Not that any agency truly is.