WASHINGTON - This is how World War III is likely to start: with cyberwarfare.
The Chinese -- government, military, commercial companies, random hackers, take your pick -- have been hacking into the computers of our aerospace companies, financial institutions, media companies and businesses for a decade. Thousands of secrets have been stolen.
But hacking is now so perniciously widespread that the United States is seriously worried. The White House says our economic well-being and our security are threatened. Theft of U.S. secrets is now more damaging than any military action China could take against us.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who ran the CIA and was a former White House chief of staff, said the other day: "It is very possible the next Pearl Harbor will be a cyberattack...(which) would have a hell of an impact on the United States."
At risk are our defense secrets, our energy grid, our infrastructure and countless business secrets. An estimated 115 U.S. companies have been hacked in the last six years, losing information and innovative ideas to theft and potentially greatly lessening their competitiveness.
Companies used to deny being hacked or try to hide it; more recently, they are angrily coming forth to denounce it. General Motors, DuPont, Coca-Cola, American Superconductor, Google, RSA Security, Lockheed Martin and Nortel Networks are just a few of the companies that have gone public. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times also have been hacked.
Attorney General Eric Holder says there are only two categories of companies affected "by trade-secret theft -- those that know they've been compromised and those that don't know it yet."
While China is a bad offender, other nations hack, too, most notably Russia. The United States also hacks, although our interests lie more in trying to figure out what shenanigans such countries as Iran are plotting.
President Barack Obama is threatening China and other hacker nations with diplomatic and trade restrictions if the hacking doesn't stop. China piously notes that hacking is against its laws and denies doing it. But even though optimism about stopping the practice is muted in Washington, the Chinese place such high stock in diplomatic protocol that if they are given less attention in diplomatic channels, it might have an impact. Likewise, they depend on trade.
Our current relations with China are not good. The trade imbalance in China's favor, its theft of U.S. intellectual property such as Hollywood movies, China's disagreement with Japan over disputed territory, our frustration with China's broken promises -- all have contributed to tension.
In addition to threats of punishment to China and its commercial entities that cyberspy on American companies, the U.S. government is undertaking a major effort to educate U.S. companies about cyberattacks, how to protect themselves and how to fight back. The CIA, for example, will provide more information on cyberspying to U.S. companies.
But Chinese hackers are not just targeting global companies and U.S. military secrets. They have gleaned valuable information from the computers of human rights organizations, federal agencies, law firms, think tanks and congressional offices.
The Washington Post talked to security experts who said this has given China an excellent idea of how top officials network and how Washington works, probably a far better idea than most Americans have. (Yes, yes, we know Washington is broken, but at least China knows exactly how.)
It's a scary new world out there. Apparently, the Chinese have been watching some of those thriller movies they regularly steal from us and putting techniques that once seemed farfetched into practice. So much easier than recruiting human spies, letting them take years to infiltrate companies and then assuming the risk they will get caught.
We need bright young whiz kids to win those $3 million "Breakthrough Prizes" for innovation that Google and Facebook founders have set up and fix this.
Meanwhile, the World War II cautionary slogan "loose lips sink ships" has become "sneaky clicks are worse than sticks."
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.