"The cyberthreat facing the nation has finally been brought to public attention," says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington national-security think tank. "Everyone knows it's a problem. It has moved out of the geek world, and that's a good thing. But it's led to more confusion than clarity. So now we're developing the skills to talk about it – and it's taking longer than I thought it would."
The awakening to cyberthreats has been gradual. In 2010, news of the world's first cyberweapon – the Stuxnet computer worm that attacked part of Iran's nuclear fuel program – burst upon the scene, raising concern about broad replication. Then came an increasing onslaught from hacktivist groups, which often stole and released private data. Between December 2010 and June 2011, for example, members of Anonymous were responsible for cyberattacks against the websites of Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal, as part of a tit for tat over the controversial WikiLeaks website.
Last year came the bald warning from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta of the possibility of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" – perhaps perpetrated by an enemy nation, extremist hacktivist groups, or cyber-savvy terrorists – that could be destructive enough to "paralyze the nation."