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Candidate's View: US lagging in addressing online national-security threats

Paresh Nath/Cagle Cartoons

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, laid the groundwork for the U.S. counterterrorism strategy that governed the beginning of the 21st century. That groundwork led to ongoing wars and a complete restructuring of our national security and intelligence agencies. It also shaped the perspective of many millennials, the largest living generation in the country.

Leah PhiferMy stepbrother joined the Marines on Sept. 12, 2001; I went on to spend nearly a decade serving in the Department of Homeland Security and working counterterrorism and cyberterrorism for the FBI. As is often the case, the war on terror wasn't initiated by the young, but it became our war to fight.

The difference today is the generation protecting our national security has little input into determining the tools needed to do so. With today's Congress ranked among the oldest in history, there is a growing disconnect between those deciding our policy and those carrying it out. This missing perspective from our leadership has left us with a national security blind spot — one that has manifested into our slow response to the rise in cyberterrorism.

As our national resources have been spread thin by fighting nefarious actors through endless wars, we've become increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks on our energy grid, bank accounts, hospital records, and elections (to name a few attacks in the last 18 months). In May, a group working on behalf of the North Korean government hacked hospitals, banks, and businesses using the "WannaCry" ransomware crypto worm. We are just now beginning to understand the effects of Russian hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

As our lives and our democracy grow increasingly automated, devious nation states and lone actors will ramp up their attempts to exploit these areas.

Solutions do exist. Private companies like JP Morgan and Google are investing millions to explore safeguarding information by using blockchain technology, which is the decentralized ledger system behind Bitcoin. Hackers at the 2017 DefCon computer security conference exposed vulnerabilities in voting machines in under 30 minutes.

While the private sector surges forward in this arena, the federal government continually loses the brightest minds to the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The American people could greatly benefit from a federal government pay scale that puts computer scientists and cyber experts on par with their private-sector counterparts. (Relaxing the prohibition on marijuana use in the security-clearance process could open up doors, but that's a proposal for another day.)

While there are actions the federal government should take to beef up our cybersecurity, there are things we should not be doing. As an FBI analyst specializing in cyberterrorism, I was concerned in 2016 when President Barack Obama called on the tech industry to provide back doors into encrypted apps for government use. The success of my job hinged on unveiling plans of aspiring terrorists, but there is no such thing as a back door that only the government can access.

Today's national-security threats are different than those of the past. Many of the soldiers will be hackers, and the battlefield will be online. North Korea and Russia are preparing their people to fight these battles. What is the U.S. doing to prepare?

We can start by electing leaders who've been on the front lines and understand the reality of today's war on terror. This will require a concerted effort to bring a greater diversity of voices to the table in 2018.

While millennials may have inherited this war, it's now our responsibility to ensure our country has the right tools and the right people in place to fight it.

Leah Phifer of Isanti, Minn., and a native of Two Harbors is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan for the DFL endorsement in the 8th Congressional District. Republican Pete Stauber and independent Ray "Skip" Sandman also have announced their candidacies for the congressional seat. Phifer teaches classes on immigration policy and political methodology at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.