Expert discusses cyber attacks and their effect on security, defense

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT)--David Sanger is the New York Times National Security Correspondent, and you can also see him on CBS's Face the Nation.

Saturday, you could also find him at the Huntsville Museum of Art as part of their ongoing Voices of Our Times lecture series.

Sanger spoke to the crowd about what the nation has learned from the Obama and Bush administrations, as it relates to national security.

Before he gave his speech, we asked him about cyber security. It's a big topic with a lot of national attention lately, and attention here locally too as students in Huntsville and Madison compete in cyber competitions.

It's also a big topic in national defense.

We asked Sanger about the hack on Sony Pictures several weeks ago, to help us define and understand "cyber warfare."

"I wouldn't say what happened to Sony amounts to cyber war, but I would say it amounts to low-level cyber conflict," he said. "And I think that's what we're going to see a lot more of."

For Sanger, for something to amount to cyber warfare it would have to be an attack that cripples American ways of life. He gave the example of shutting down a power grid.

But his prediction keys us into the importance of defending against cyber attacks as individuals with our own computers, and as a nation with our defense.

"I think the big question is, was the response to Sony strong enough that it would prevent a future attack?" asked Sanger. "I'm not sure the answer is, 'Yes,'" he reflected.

Sanger says it's different than nuclear warfare of years past. First, hacks can be hard to trace.

Agencies have to figure out where the attack came from, and who is behind it. But that proves trickier when computers and data are involved instead of missiles and drones.

Sanger says defense has to change because the kinds of threats against our nation are evolving.

But he sees Huntsville is living that evolution as more and more defense companies invest in and incorporate cyber technology.

"What use is your anti-missile system if somebody can hack into it as soon as you launched it?" asked Sanger. "My guess is you're going to see more of [this type of] flexibility as our defenses have to spread out in networked ways around the globe, and not be as concentrated on a big nuclear force that frankly, these days doesn't buy us as much as it did 20, 25 years ago."