Since 2009, online attacks that could destroy key infrastructure in the U.S. have skyrocketed. And the man in charge of cyber defense gave the national a failing grade in being prepared.
Gen. Keith Alexander is director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. He spoke Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado about cyber threats from around the world.
When asked by moderator Pete Williams of NBC how well-prepared, on a scale of 1-10, the U.S. is for a serious cyber attack on a critical part of our infrastructure, Alexander said, "From my perspective I'd say around a 3."
He later said that cyber attacks that could not just disrupt computer systems but destroy them or the machines they run have climbed more than seventeen-fold since 2009.
He said the nation's financial industries and Internet-related companies have very robust cyber security, but he's concerned about vital services that many take for granted until they're interrupted.
"I'm worried most about the power. I'm worried about water, I think those are the ones that need the most help," Alexander said.
But he said these destructive attacks have the potential to cause problems that last much longer than, say, a day without access to your Facebook account.
"What they could do is destroy parts of our infrastructure like routers, servers, actual end devices that would have to be replaced. And if you do that in such a way, some of the replacement of that would take weeks or months."
Alexander said the threat to computers and the industries they run is sitting in the average American's hand each day.
"Your cell phone is communicating completely digital; it's part of the Internet. Your attack surfaces for adversaries to get on the Internet now include all those mobile devices. And so, if you want to penetrate, you can go through a land line, to the Internet that way, or now we can go through the iPhone, or the Android or through your mobile device that way," Alexander said. "The mobile security situation lags. It's far behind."
His message was not all negative. He said work is under way to improve the nation's cyber defenses.
"I do think there are government/industry partnerships to help mitigate as many of these vulnerabilities as possible."
And as commander of the Pentagon's Cyber Command, his mission includes "conducting full-spectrum military cyberspace operations." When asked if his command has undertaken such operations he replied, "Yes, but I can't go into that."
Alexander is encouraging Congress to pass the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which would establish what the government and industry can do to protect the nation's computers from attack.
The bill is moving through the Senate this week.