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The coronavirus pandemic reveals how prepared the U.S. is for cyber conflict

March 25, 2020, 3:11 PM UTC

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Plan for the worst. Better yet, rehearse.

The disruptions to life caused by the coronavirus pandemic provide valuable insight into how countries might react during a cyber crisis. People are being forced to stay at home, they’re relying on businesses’—and online delivery companies’—logistics networks to sustain them, and Internet connectivity maintenance is a top priority everywhere.

Members of the military are paying close attention to worldwide responses to the crisis. Jan Kallberg and Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point note the similarities between now and what might occur during a cyber conflict. In a smart op-ed for the cybersecurity news site Fifth Domain, they write that governments must tamp down on panic while keeping their citizenry informed. Businesses must operate stably. And first responders and law enforcement must keep their cool while doing their jobs.

Can governments maintain law and order? Can businesses continue to produce and deliver under pressure? Can the population keep its anxieties in check? The U.S. is learning the answers.

So are its rivals. “Likely, our potential adversaries study carefully how our society reacts to COVID-19,” write Kallberg and Hamilton. “For example, if the population obeys the government, if our government maintains control and enforces its agenda and if the nation was prepared.”

Kallberg and Hamilton warn that any fractures in the system will become apparent and should be addressed. “If the population questions the government’s ability to protect, the government’s legitimacy and authority will suffer,” they write.

It’s unlikely the U.S. will get wrecked by a “Cyber Pearl Harbor,” a single, massive devastating blow to the system. Networks are too complicated, too asynchronous, for such a simplistic disaster scenario. But broad-based, opportunistic attacks against public infrastructure and industries are guaranteed. They’re inevitable.

The country should learn these lessons now so it can be more resilient later.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

Big Tech gets bigger. Social distancing has increased people's reliance on services from the world's biggest tech giants. Facebook usage is skyrocketing, even as its advertising sales falter. Amazon, whose stock has weathered the market sell-off better than most peers, says it is hiring 100,000 workers to deal with a surge in online orders. Microsoft's online collaboration software, Microsoft Teams, is booming—and its supply chain is "getting back on rails," says CEO Satya Nadella. Netflix streaming is hitting all-time highs. Meanwhile, Apple is looking to start reopening stores in April.

WHO's there? The World Health Organization is seeing twice as many hacking and phishing attempts as usual, the group's chief information security officer, Flavio Aggio, told Reuters. Some unnamed cybersecurity experts seemed to think a set of attacks were coming from a group called DarkHotel, who some people attribute to North Korea. Among other troublemaking, the hackers are setting up fake websites in an attempt to steal staffers' passwords.

Getting kicked while down. It's not just the WHO in hackers' crosshairs. Cybercriminals and spies are opportunistically using the global health crisis as a launchpad for attacks all over. Cybersecurity experts warn the fallout may not become apparent for weeks.

Barbarians at the Gates. In an interview with TED, Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned that loosening social distancing measures and restarting the economy earlier, an idea President Trump has floated, would be "very irresponsible." Gates, a major philanthropist focused on pubic health, added, "There really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.'"

Beware "zoombombing."

ACCESS GRANTED

The data economy's ill effects—privacy infringement, opacity, scarce content moderation—derive from tech companies' business models. Many are consequences of targeted advertising. So, why don't we just ban targeted ads? In Congressional testimony this January, David Heinemeier Hansson, cofounder of Basecamp, a Chicago-based tech firm, offered this intriguing idea, as Wired relates.

The solution to our privacy problems, suggested Hansson, was actually quite simple. If companies couldn’t use our data to target ads, they would have no reason to gobble it up in the first place, and no opportunity to do mischief with it later. From that fact flowed a straightforward fix: “Ban the right of companies to use personal data for advertising targeting.”

If Hansson’s proffer—that targeted advertising is at the heart of everything wrong with the internet and should be outlawed—sounds radical, that’s because it is. It cuts to the core of how some of the most profitable companies in the world make their money.

FORTUNE RECON

There’s a global sprint to design thousands of ventilators by Clay Chandler

With 5G, wearable devices are expected to become even more sci-fi by Jennifer Alsever

How will Tesla weather the coronavirus storm? Quite nicely, analysts predict by David Z. Morris

17 companies that are hiring during the coronavirus crisis by Chris Morris

This is not a drill: The coronavirus pandemic is testing A.I.’s ability to handle extreme events by Jeremy Kahn

ONE MORE THING

If you've looked out the window or stepped outside lately, you're probably seeing many more masks on people's faces. You might be surprised to learn the mask's medical history dates back to a time when people believed that smell itself carried diseases like the bubonic plague. As Fast Company explores in this origin story of the N95 mask, physicians in the 17th century wore creepy bird-beak masks loaded with incense to protect themselves from sickness.