The United States is the nation most vulnerable in the world to cyberattacks, according to a former Obama administration official, a recognition that America’s digital infrastructure is uniquely susceptible to foreign penetration.
The U.S. is “the best in the world on the offense,” said Rob Knake, a former director for cybersecurity policy at the Obama White House, before adding that America is politically and technically the most susceptible nation in the world to digital attacks.
“We are going to be less reactive to incoming cyberattacks because we have more to lose and we’re in a democratic society that is going to force government to take certain responses,” Knake said during a June 20 event at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s not true of China, Russia, Iran or North Korea.”
While the overall tone of his comments were not surprising, Knake provided rare details into the Obama administration’s cyber-deterrence policy that has recently been criticized for not being more aggressive in response to foreign actions. He walked through the White House’s response to Iranian cyberattacks on American banks, which appear to have occurred from 2011 to 2013.
Knake said the first temptation was for the U.S. to strike back against the Iranians, but the White House decided to hold off for two reasons.
First, there was an ongoing secret dialogue with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear capacity that might be thrown into chaos after an American digital retaliation. Second, Knake said there was a decision not to “legitimize” the Iranian hacking. Instead, the Obama administration decided to “to put the costs on the banks, (because) they can afford it.”
The Obama administration is widely reported to have conducted a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that became known as “Stuxnet” after it was exposed in 2010.
The apparent recognition that financial institutions paid the price for U.S. foreign policy is another indicator of how complex America’s digital infrastructure is. Unlike most other nations, a large percentage of America’s critical infrastructure is privately owned.