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Tom Ridge: Cyber attacks are now worse than physical attacks

If you still doubted the importance of stronger digital security to businesses even after the now-infamous Sony Pictures hack of 2014, Tom Ridge’s comments at the Concordia Summit on Tuesday in New York might convince you.

The former (and first ever) secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was part of a panel on cybersecurity, and opened his remarks by mentioning recent incidents in New York, New Jersey, and Paris.

“Notwithstanding the pain and horror associated with a physical attack,” Ridge said, “the potential for physical, human, and psychic impact with a cyber attack, I think, is far more serious.”

That’s right: Digital attacks are now more dangerous and damaging than physical attacks, Ridge argues.

Tom Ridge at Concordia 2016
Tom Ridge at Concordia 2016

Ridge made his case further by adding that a cyber attack can have “much more significant impact on the country’s psyche… We live in the digital forevermore, and that risk is dynamic, it continues to morph, continues to get more serious, actors get better financed.”

That “digital forevermore” is an apparent pet phrase of Ridge’s these days, and it makes sense. While the Sony hack is everyone’s favorite example, big companies like Home Depot, Anthem, Blue Cross, Starwood, and Target have been targeted in the past two years. Many different news outlets called 2015 “the year of the hack.”

And it isn’t always hacker groups, but too often, countries hacking each other. “Nations are using cyber as an element of national power,” said retired US Army General Keith Alexander, “not only to collect information but to hit other countries. It’s continued and will continue to grow.”

One potential solution, the panelists agreed: better sharing of information between governmental departments, and between government and the private sector.

Reginald Brothers, Homeland Security’s undersecretary for science and technology, stressed the need for information-sharing. In late April, Brothers helped organize Homeland Security Day in Silicon Valley, an “ideation event” where representatives of the government brainstormed and collaborated with tech entrepreneurs in Menlo Park.

Brothers said a topic of particular interest was what Homeland Security can do with respect to the Internet of Things, a now-common term for the many Web-connected devices that fill our homes and lives.

“In this whole idea of partnering up with industry, a huge part is information-sharing with respect to threat factors,” Brothers said, “but a second part is getting the creativity from all of you to help us do the best job we can for the department and the nation.”

Ridge’s point, Alexander’s point, and Brothers’s point can be taken in tandem—cyber attacks are getting worse; they are now coming even from nations, not just hacker groups; the damage of cyber attacks can often be worse than physical attacks; and if Silicon Valley innovators can work with government, the threats could be somewhat alleviated.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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