Has The Cyberwar Threat Been Exaggerated?

Four experts argue over the motion "The Cyber War Threat Has Been Grossly Exaggerated."

Four experts argue over the motion "The Cyber War Threat Has Been Grossly Exaggerated" during an Oxford-style debate moderated by John Donvan (center), before an audience at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on June 8. Dennis Brack hide caption

toggle caption Dennis Brack

As succeeding presidential administrations and leaders in the Pentagon devote increasing resources to defending U.S. computer networks and planning for potential cyber warfare, some observers are questioning whether the cyber threat has been overstated.

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While risks do exist, they say, most of them don't truly rise to the level of war. And framing the debate in war terms could provide justification for the U.S. intelligence community to assert greater authority over what people can do on the Internet, they argue.

But those who warn of the country's cyber vulnerabilities argue that criminals, hackers and other nations pose a great threat to disrupt and destroy the data networks the U.S. relies on so heavily — and strong defenses are essential.

Four experts recently gathered to explore both sides of the issue in an Oxford-style debate on the motion "The Cyber War Threat Has Been Grossly Exaggerated" before an audience at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The debate was the first in the Intelligence Squared U.S. series to be held outside New York City.

Before the debate, the audience voted 24 percent in favor of the motion "The Cyber War Threat Has Been Grossly Exaggerated," and 54 percent against, with 22 percent undecided. And the side arguing against the motion carried the day: After the debate, 71 percent of the audience voted to oppose the motion, 23 percent supported it and 6 percent remained undecided.

John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News' Nightline, moderated the June 8 debate. Those debating were:

FOR THE MOTION

Marc Rotenberg is executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. He teaches information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center and has testified before Congress on many issues, including access to information, encryption policy, consumer protection, computer security and communications privacy. He testified before the 9/11 Commission on "Security and Liberty: Protecting Privacy, Preventing Terrorism." He has served on several national and international advisory panels, including the expert panel on cryptography policy and computer security for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist, referred to by The Economist as a "security guru." He is the author of nine books — including the best-sellers Beyond Fear, Secrets and Lies and Applied Cryptography — as well as hundreds of articles and essays, and many more academic papers. His influential newsletter Crypto-Gram and his blog Schneier on Security are read by more than 250,000 people. Schneier is the chief security technology officer of BT.

Retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell i

Retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell argues for the team against the motion, which won the debate. Dennis Brack hide caption

toggle caption Dennis Brack
Retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell

Retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell argues for the team against the motion, which won the debate.

Dennis Brack

AGAINST THE MOTION

John M. "Mike" McConnell, a retired vice admiral, is executive vice president and leader of the national security business for Booz Allen Hamilton and is a member of the firm's leadership team. McConnell previously served from 2007-09 as U.S. director of national intelligence, a position of Cabinet rank under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As DNI, he served as the principal intelligence adviser to the president and as a member of the U.S. National Security Council. McConnell's career has spanned more than 40 years, focusing on international developments and foreign intelligence issues, including 29 years as a career intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy.

Jonathan Zittrain is professor of law at Harvard Law School, where he co-founded its Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society. Previously, he was professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. He performed the first large-scale tests of Internet filtering in China and Saudi Arabia in 2002, and now as part of the OpenNet Initiative, he has co-edited a study of Internet filtering by national governments, "Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering."


The Intelligence Squared U.S. series is produced in New York City by The Rosenkranz Foundation.

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