The keyboard and the Colt

Today's hackers are yesterday's gunslingers and should prompt our country into a more serious cybersecurity posture

colt single action revolver
Siew Yi Liang (CC BY 2.0)

Venture capitalists talk about an unfair competitive advantage. Business experts talk about leveling the playing field. And everyone else just talks about fair play. But when it comes to warfare everyone wants the unfair, overwhelming competitive advantage.  For years the U.S. military has had this advantage with manpower, equipment, technology and strategies. But a simple change on the order of the invention of the Colt 45 pistol makes all of that moot. 

Long ago in the American West the saying was, "God made men but Sam Colt made them equal." What this was meant to imply was that a Colt revolver, the first mass-produced, widely-used revolver that held six bullets at a time instead of the previous one-shot pistol, equalized the playing field for combatants. Anyone with the dedication to acquire the skills to use a Colt 45 revolver could defeat a bigger, stronger adversary with a single shot. 

In today's world the equivalent of a Colt 45 is a keyboard. Think about this: Does it matter that the U.S. has more battleships, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and laser-guided missiles than any other country on Earth when a single cyberattack could render them useless? In short, no. In today's world an expert on a keyboard is the functional equivalent of a gunslinger. An expert who faces off with a bigger, stronger opponent, sometimes outnumbered or "outgunned" and yet is victorious because of their superior skills.  

Never having had the honor of serving this country in our military I'm an outsider. I have no idea about the training, discipline, physical rigor or dedication it takes to be a soldier, officer or commander. I'll never know about the hours of conditioning, the fear of battle or the pain of being wounded. What's scary even to me, though, is that some overweight, breathless, Cheetos-eating, Red Bull-drinking hacker on the other side of world might neutralize all of the capabilities of the military with a single keystroke.  Skilled hackers level the playing field in the same way that the first Colt 45 revolver leveled it in the American West. A smaller, less fearsome and otherwise less capable adversary could take down missiles, the electric grid or the financial system of the country with that keyboard.  

It's past time for the U.S. to face the reality that warfare has changed forever. We need to create the same kind of programs for cyberspace protection as we have for the armed forces or the Coast Guard. Being an expert marksman or prepared for hand-to-hand combat won't matter if the vehicle delivering you to the battlefield is hacked and run off the road. Having a $35 million fighter jet, flown by a superb pilot with millions of dollars in training and conditioning won't matter if a hacker can disable the engines while they are flying at 1000 knots towards a target. 

We need to approach the country's cybersecurity protection with the same vigor, investment and intensity as we have put into our military for the past 250 years. Either that or risk having some hacker in a dark room a thousand miles away from the nearest battlefield render all of our expertise, manpower and expenditures useless with the Colt 45 of today: their keyboard.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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