America has a serious infrastructure problem.

America’s most urgent infrastructure vulnerability is largely invisible and unlikely to be fixed by the Biden administration’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

I’m thinking about vulnerabilities that lurk in your garage (your car), your house (your computer), and even your pocket (your phone). Like those devices of yours, all connected to the Internet and so hackable, American businesses, hospitals, and public utilities can also be hijacked from a distance thanks to the software that helps run their systems. And don’t think that the American military and even cybersecurity agencies and firms aren’t seriously at risk, too.

Such vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the programs — and sometimes even the hardware — that run our increasingly wired society. Beware “zero-day” exploits — so named because you have zero days to fix them once they’re discovered — that can attract top-dollar investments from corporations, governments, and even black-market operators. Zero days allow backdoor access to iPhones, personal email programs, corporate personnel files, even the computers that run dams, voting systems, and nuclear power plants.

It’s as if all of America were now protected by nothing but a few old padlocks, the keys to which have been made available to anyone with enough money to buy them (or enough ingenuity to make a set for themselves). And as if that weren’t bad enough, it was America that inadvertently made these keys available to allies, adversaries, and potential blackmailers alike.

The recent SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, as well as companies like Microsoft, for which the Biden administration recently sanctioned Russia and expelled several of its embassy staff, is only the latest example of how other countries can hack basic American infrastructure. Such intrusions, which actually date back to the early 2000s, are often still little more than tests, ways of getting a sense of how easy it might be to break into that infrastructure in more serious ways later. Occasionally, however, the intruders do damage by vacuuming up data or wiping out systems, especially if the targets fail to pay cyber-ransoms. More insidiously, hackers can also plant “time bombs” capable of going off at some future moment.


The Coming Cyber War