The metaphor is wrong
Part of the problem with a cyber Pearl Harbor is that although the threat is real, the particular metaphor may be flawed. Pearl Harbor was not just an unexpected and devastating blow to US military forces in the Pacific, once the attack took place, the military and the public recognised the threat. A significant cyber attack may not be so immediately crippling.
“The most pressing cyber threat is not likely to be a single, sudden attack that cripples the United States,” wrote Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations.
That is not to say the threat itself is overhyped, but the attacks may come in the form of cumulative damage done through stealing data or undermining confidence in the Internet. “These low intensity but disruptive attacks are increasing and can damage banking, transport, and communications systems,” Segal continues. “Over time, future attacks could become even more destructive as cyber weapons and capacities proliferate and as electricity, power, transport, and communications infrastructures become increasingly dependent on the Internet.”
It’s already happening
The most insidious part of cyber warfare may be that while people are looking for a monumental type of attack, they miss what is already happening. That, at least, is what some experts are arguing. Financial attacks happen on a daily basis, and there have been ongoing reports of targeted foreign attacks on American defence and aerospace companies. The government is also at direct risk: the Pentagon revealed it was the target of a massive 2008 cyber infiltration that officials linked to a foreign espionage agency.
In other words, the attacks are already happening, just not as a single event. “Today, the ongoing compromise of sensitive military information systems, the theft of intellectual property, and the recruitment of men, women, and children into zombie armies, all these pass largely beneath our levels of awareness,” wrote John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School. “Cyberwarfare is a lot like [US poet] Carl Sandburg's fog, coming in on ‘little cat feet’.”