The most significant breach of U.S. military computers occurred in 2008 when an infected Flash drive was inserted into a U.S. military laptop in the Middle East.
The incident is discussed publicly for the first time by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn in an article published on Wednesday on the Foreign Affairs Web site.
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Lynn does not provide details about what information was compromised, but asserts that the breach was the most significant ever for the Department of Defense and that it served as a wake-up call.
Lynn says that frequency and sophistication of attacks on U.S. military networks has increased exponentially over the past decade. The 2008 incident, he says, was not the only successful penetration of U.S. military networks.
He claims that attackers have acquired thousands of files from U.S. networks and from networks operated by U.S. allies and industry partners.
Noting that attacks extend beyond military networks to companies like Google, which disclosed in January that it had lost intellectual property to a sophisticated cyber attack from China, Lynn argues that the theft of U.S. intellectual property may present an even greater long-term threat than attacks on critical infrastructure.
U.S. businesses, academic institutions, and government agencies lose "an amount of intellectual property many times larger than all the intellectual property contained in the Library of Congress" every year, Lynn says. Given that military strength comes from economic might, he argues that the economic consequences of ongoing intellectual property losses could hamper U.S. military effectiveness and economic competitiveness.
Hopefully, the situation will improve. U.S. Cyber Command, a unified command structure for network defense and operations, opened in May, and is expected to become fully operational in October. Nonetheless, Lynn sees the need for greater coordination between the public and private sector, and between the U.S. and its allies, to secure the nation's networks.