The anonymous hacker is quickly replacing the terrorist as the go-to bogeyman in the American cultural imagination. Like Islamist radicals, the kinds of hackers that have brought down the servers of corporate giants and government agencies are mysterious and stealthy, spreading fear and paranoia from a faraway land.
In April, President Obama made the ideological connection between the two official with an Executive Order declaring a national emergency due to “malicious cyber-enabled activities” which constitute “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Both the Islamist radical and the Chinese, North Korean, or Russian hacker are frightening specters who deserve the attention of the American government. But as much as the federal government granted itself sweeping and invasive authority to violate the rights of millions of Americans in the name of fighting terror, today’s government once again steps over Constitutional boundaries in the name of keeping Americans safe from a new kind of threat.
The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), part of Obama’s increased push for cybersecurity in response to last year’s Sony Pictures hack, represents such a step. The bill sounds innocuous enough: It encourages companies to share data about hacks with each other and the federal government so all parties can better prevent further theft of Americans’ data.
But CISA stands to make the same mistakes CISPAdid in 2013. Just as advocates for increased government surveillance manipulated public fears about terrorism to defend the PATRIOT Act, advocates for CISA are relying on the high-profile breaches at U.S. companies and government agencies to further invade the private digital lives of Americans.
This has become abundantly clear in the past month—which Obama designated Cybersecurity Awareness Month. The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), immediatelyseized upon a breach at credit agency Experian as in order to pass “important, balanced legislation to help companies get the information they need to stop losses like this.” Burr and Feinstein argued that opponents to the bill (which include Silicon Valley giants like Google andApple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) “will only succeed in allowing more personal information to be compromised to criminals and foreign countries.”
Legislators conducted similar fear-mongering tactics in support of CISPA, the last attempt in Congress’s whack-a-mole regulation of the Internet. The games first began with 2012’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Despite criticisms from Silicon Valley, the EFF, and even the White House (which now supports CISA), lawmakers like Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said CISPA would help to prevent “digital bombs” and former New York representative Dan Maffei claimed the bill would stop attempts to “hack into our nation’s power grid.”