OK, so maybe we don't have robots as housekeepers or drive flying cars, but past predictions about how automated and computerized our society would become aren't that far off. Today, everything from traffic lights and trains to databases and communication is predicated on functional supercomputer technology. In most respects, that's a good thing. It allows us to do more with fewer resources, and in many cases - such as mining big data or decoding DNA - to do things that just weren't possible in the past.

Of course, there's also a downside. Because so much of our technology depends on networking and interconnectivity, our dependence on computer technology has created openings for predators to damage some of our most precious systems. It's a frightening thought, and for good reason. Just imagine for a moment that a vital system such as, for example, the air traffic control system of a major airport, was infected by a virus. The potential damage that such a mishap could cause ranges anywhere from troubling to catastrophic. The same risks exist for the government systems we count on for safety and security.

When you consider the implications of those sorts of risks, it's no wonder that cybersecurity has taken the forefront of the political discourse in Washington, D.C. While both parties seem to agree that there is a cybersecurity threat, there is much debate about what steps should be taken to address it. What is the nature of the cybersecurity threats we face? Well, let's take look. (For some background reading, check out Advanced Persistent Threats: First Salvo in the Coming Cyberwar?)

The Nature of the Threat

The litany of cyberthreats that both the private and public sector must face seems to have a positive relationship with the increasing speed of technology. Particularly in the financial and technology sector, there are many potential dangers ranging from the piracy of vital product information to the disruption or even destruction of vital systems. While many business leaders have discussed the importance of a targeted strategy to combat these issues, its importance has not been well understood. Think about what would happen if a cyberthreat derailed a major Facebook server or even a Yahoo or Gmail account server. What could go wrong? How about if a major bank’s system is compromised? It is questions like these that have business and political leaders working on a solution. In the U.S, that means the development of a cybersecurity framework for protecting critical infrastructure, which was called for under executive order by President Barack Obama in February 2013.

But the scope of this issue extends beyond the private sector. In February 2013, American cybersecurity firm Mandiant released what has been referred to as a bombshell report about an extensive series of cyberespionage attacks being performed by hackers in China. The 60-page document suggests that organized groups of hackers in Shanghai have compromised information at a number of U.S firms including Coca-Cola as well as many other companies that have a hand in important infrastructure such as gas lines, water lines and the power grid. What is more troubling are the suggestions that these groups are being sponsored by members of the Chinese government (a charge that top Chinese officials have categorically denied).

To many intelligence analysts, these suggestions are nothing new. Many experts in the know have found evidence of hacking dating back to the middle of the last decade that even targeted security and intelligence agencies within the U.S government. The extent of these threats led U.S National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to warn China of the damaging effects these cyber attacks can have on the country's evolving relationship with the United States. On March 11 at a summit for the Asia Society in New York, Donilon said, "U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyberintrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country." This emphatic statement underscores the extent to which cyberthreats have increased in recent years and the importance of addressing the concerns that they raise.

What Are the Risks?

So what exactly do advanced nations stand to lose as a result of the cyberespionage we hear so much about? While there are several answers to that question, most of them revolve around economic losses and security compromises. On a commercial level, rampant hacking can result in the loss of highly valuable intellectual property. In 2010, for example, Google reported that Chinese hackers had stolen the company's source code. There have also been several other reports of espionage in high-profile companies such as Shell and Rolls Royce for valuable secrets.

Overall, many experts believe that cyberespionage results in several billions of dollars in economic loss each year - a staggering opportunity cost for any nation. What’s worse is that the risks of cyberspying aren’t just limited to the economy. A cyberterrorist with access to a power grid can do massive amounts of damage to important infrastructure. These risks also extend to national security systems. A recent report conducted by an advisory board to the Secretary of Defense revealed that the firewalls protecting the U.S Department of Defense are built on a pretty shaky foundation. The report concluded that the U.S is currently not equipped to handle a major cyberattack, and that vital data is at risk of being compromised.

One of the most unsettling effects of hacking is a personal one. It seems that the personal information of even the most high-profile figures isn't safe. In March 2013, for example, hackers released the Social Security numbers of both Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama. Hackers also released private financial information for entertainers Beyonce and Jay-z on a website. This case raises many additional concerns regarding personal privacy in the digital world.

Government Action

Many political leaders have decided to take bold and swift action to combat these threats. In February 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on cybersecurity. The purpose of the executive order was to set in motion an aggressive series of countermeasures to various cyber threats. The order intends to accomplish this through security coordination with select companies in the private sector as well as the creation of a stronger cybersecurity framework to protect the country’s main information interests. However, both the White House and critics of the order alike have admitted that further action is needed from Congress to make this work. The U.S Department of Defense has formed "cyber teams" tasked with taking the offensive against cyberthreats. Canada has also taken steps to address security in the form of government regulation, but many have claimed that these measures simply aren’t enough and that Canada must do more to combat cyberattacks, especially in the face of reports that have shown that the country has also been the target of hackers in China and around the world.

Can Anything Be Done?

In the coming years, cybersecurity is likely to have a profound impact on the global economy. Not only does it stand to affect the well-being of the private sector, but it will also impact the global economy and national security. For this reason, it must be addressed through a coordinated effort among business and political leaders around the world. With all the political infighting and lack of movement in many governments right now, whether that all comes together remains to be seen. We had all better hope that it does. The consequences of inaction here could be enormous.