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Majority of Americans fear cyber war is imminent

A poll by Tenable Network Security, which works with the US Department of Defense and military and government clients globally, found that the increasingly strong rhetoric about a “cyber Pearl Harbor” and cyber attacks being the modern-day equivalent of nuclear weapons is apparently having an effect on the nation’s psyche. Add to that a surge of headlines about media-site hacking by China and an executive order issued by President Obama demanding new cybersafety standards for government and corporate networks (meriting a shout-out in the State of the Union address as well), and it's no wonder that the topic has clearly crossed the chasm into mainstream consciousness.

For instance, the survey shows that 93% of Americans believe that US corporations and businesses are at least somewhat vulnerable to state-sponsored attacks. About 95% believe US government agencies themselves are at least somewhat-to-very vulnerable.

If the US were to undergo a cyber attack, Americans are most concerned about disruption to utilities – such as water, electric and gas (37%). And a full 92% of Americans believe public utilities are vulnerable to state-sponsored cyber attacks.

As for other consequences, more people are concerned about disruption to communication infrastructure, i.e. phone and internet, (21%) than they are about disruption to transportation infrastructure, i.e., planes, trains and public transportation (7%). And 30% are concerned about disruption to financial services.

As a result, 60% of respondents support increasing government spending to train and equip "cyber-warriors" to defend the US against outside attacks. Only 10% of respondents are opposed such an increase in spending. Also, 94% of Americans who responded said they support the president having the same level of authority to react to cyber attacks as he has to respond to physical attacks on the country.

"It’s clear [that] American citizens see the threat of cyber conflict around the corner, and the nation’s state of readiness for such attacks is a major concern," said Ron Gula, a former cybersecurity expert with the NSA and now CEO and CTO of Tenable Network Security, in a statement.

"Americans also want to see more done in both the public and private sector, with the government leading the way in setting standards and ensuring that important networks are protected,” Gula continued. “Given this strong level of support across age groups and demographics, we may see cybersecurity move up the list of critical policy and legislative proposals."

Respondents however expressed conflicting sentiments about whether the public or private sector should shoulder responsibility for protecting corporate networks. Sixty-six percent of respondents in the survey believe corporations should be held responsible for cyber breaches when they occur. But an almost equal number of Americans (62%) say government should be responsible for protecting US businesses and corporations from cyber attacks.

"I think these rather conflicting results on who should be held accountable reveal that Americans want both the public and private sector working closely together on cybersecurity," Gula said. "I think they clearly want the government to be a better first line of defense but they also want to make sure US corporations are equally diligent in guarding against cyber attacks."