Let’s Not Overreact to the Syrian Electronic Army Threat

An increase in federal cybersecurity spending will come at the expense of fundamental social-safety-net programs.

Fascinating reports about the sudden rise of the Syrian Electronic Army will ultimately raise more questions about federal investment in technology than how long U.S. military assets will be lobbing cruise missiles at Damascus. The topics seem unrelated, but they’re not, particularly since the new kid hacking sensations on the block have successfully forced the New York Times to send online readers to their mobile site.

That’s a feat of abundant tech-ticular fortitude by numerous measures these days, leading many to wonder if a full-blown cyberwar isn’t already brewing. Less than two full weeks ago, and right on the cusp of a possible Syria strike, Google, Amazon and Outlook.com blew a fuse.

Was it really technical difficulties, or was it the SEA digital guard blasting bits all over the Internets? There’s no way to confirm at the moment since we’re all caught up in politician huddles over next steps.

But, what is obvious is that this will be one more reason to beef up the cyberspace industrial complex, courtesy of increased skirmishes in the newest domain in warfare. This will translate into a larger federal cybersecurity investment, which, according to Market Research Media, is already valued around $65.5 billion — and growing at a tune of 6.5 percent. That’s faster than the limping 2.5 percent second-quarter growth rate in U.S. GDP. While the need for cybersecurity against aggressive digital actors such as China, Russia and, now, Syria warrant an equal need for a defensive posture, there’s also need for a watchful eye on the spending in this age of bloated federal deficits and austerity.

Federal IT and cybersecurity spending will naturally rise as the geopolitical landscape gets a lot more complex. But there should be recognition that it will probably come at a cost and at the expense of other critical needs. Our incessant hunger for the next digital breakthrough and toy (households are just as guilty of this as governments) exceeds investment in reduced social safety nets and entitlements. And with all this debate, spurred by conservatives, about the wasteful spending in social programs, few are willing to take on private contractors who are continually eating up big chunks of federal agency budgets when insourcing is just as efficient.

The Obama administration may be requesting a 2 percent hike in federal IT spending for Fiscal Year 2014, but it’s quick to put a slice in Social Security on the table. The federal IT market is valued at over half a trillion — with 3 percent increased spending projected into 2018. Possibly offsetting that in an effort to keep the deficit down will be the $800 billion in cuts to Social Security over the next 10 years.

Interestingly, that move is as generational and political as it is born out of institutional necessity. Some Democrats — including the president — are already worried that they’ll lose young voters if they remain wedded to expensive entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Millenials, so the thought goes, will resent being forced to foot the future bill.

Investing in more information technology is an easy sell to younger, tech-savvy voters who never think that digital tabs can swell, too — especially when the rate of computer power is doubling every six months (and the smartphone you just bought the other day is now obsolete). Part of that sell is the current STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fad to make the U.S. economy much more globally competitive.

Lawmakers and thought leaders all like STEM — but there are quiet off-the-record concerns blooming into new questions: When is STEM too much STEM? When is lots of digital too much?

This isn’t the usual gripe about kids playing too many video games or folks spending too much time on social media. This gets into deeper questions about how much we value technology over other essential components of our economy. Some worry that excessive information technology investments and the rise of the app economy can not only potentially stifle or shift investment away from hard manufacturing, but it can also displace those in the economy who either don’t know STEM or have interest and skills in other fields. Technology as a driver in the larger economy seems like a good thing on its face, but if that issue of balance is not addressed, we risk creating a new set of problems.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is a weekly contributor to the Philly Post, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. A veteran political strategist, he is also the weekly Washington Insider on WDAS 105.3 FM, every Sunday at 9:50 a.m. ET and can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.