When the Pew Research Center asked 2,000 Americans last month to react to various potential international threats to the U.S., their number-one worry was ISIS. That’s no surprise: The terrorist group is scary by design, relying on propaganda videos and ultra-violent attacks to spread fear and project power. Pew had asked the same question last year and the year before, and ISIS topped the list of concerns then, too.
But coming in second right after the terrorist group was the prospect of country-on-country cyberwar: a digital raid to steal another government’s information, for example, or a large-scale attack on a nation’s electrical grid. Cyberattacks are a major threat in the minds of 72 percent of Americans, and a minor threat to another 22 percent. They beat out global economic instability, infectious diseases, refugees, and climate change for the silver medal on the roster of potential dangers.
Last year’s data breach at the Office of Personnel Management likely raised the profile of the potential dangers of state-sponsored cyberattacks. That episode resulted in the theft of more than 21 million Social Security numbers from the U.S. government, along with a slew of other sensitive personal information—including more than 5 million fingerprints. Officials blamed China for the attack.