As you read these words, there are groups of computer experts in Russia and China, probably Iran as well, developing ways to "take down" parts of the American economy: a piece of our electricity generation and transmission system, weapons systems used by our military, a slice or two of our financial and banking systems.
And there are others -- some associated with organized crime, others simply modern entrepreneurial cybercriminals -- that have developed ways to siphon off money from your bank, or grab and sell your Social Security and credit card numbers.
In the dark universe of cyberspace there are no international treaties or rule-making bodies -- and experts are concerned about major attacks on the United States, such as the one against the federal Office of Personnel Management first disclosed earlier this month. Deterrence, the preferred method of conflict prevention between superpowers in the Cold War, doesn't work very well because the "enemy" doesn't have any geographic location or even identity. That means you can't threaten annihilation if you're attacked.CartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: The new old Penn StationCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
As society becomes more dependent on digital technology and transactions, the methods of cyber-attack multiply in effectiveness and number, and mounting a defensive effort that protects against most of them most of the time becomes increasingly difficult. Get an experienced intelligence official or national security expert alone and ask what worries them the most, and their answer will be a cyber-attack.
Details about most past cyber-attacks -- many of those on financial institutions, for example -- have been classified by the federal government. So how is the American public to learn about the character and pace of the threats building up? How are we to hold our elected officials accountable for doing something about it?
The right first step is for a handful of respected and bipartisan public officials to plan a "campaign" across the country to bring the American people some straight talk about the threats and dangers of cyberwarfare and what we can do to meet them. They will have to paint the picture of these growing threats realistically and powerfully enough to allow the public to grasp the big picture and to support legislative and administrative efforts to respond to those threats. One of these leaders should be Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who is knowledgeable, fair, and passionate on this issue, and has served on intelligence and cybersecurity committees in the Congress.
Today most of the talk about the cyber-danger is insider conversation behind the closed doors of the national security community. That kind of huge gulf between what the experts really worry about and what the public knows endangers our democracy.
Peter Goldmark is former budget director of New York State and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. He headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.