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Latest hack into government computers demands sweeping changes in defenses

In a speech at Stanford University in February, President Obama made a statement that probably sums up the worst fears of Americans concerned about the increasing instances and threats of cyberattacks.

He said that shortly after taking office, “I said that these cyberthreats were one of the most serious economic national security challenges that we face as a nation, and I made confronting them a priority.”

The priority is now an emergency for at least 4 million current and former government workers who find themselves victims of one of the largest breaches of federal employees’ data.

Officials are blaming China, and that country is unsurprisingly denying wrongdoing. Cold comfort for those whose private and most sensitive information has been compromised for yet-to-be determined purposes. Reports quote officials saying that the same Chinese hackers appear to have been responsible for similar thefts of personal data at two major health care firms, Anthem and Premera.

The latest cyberattack was aimed at data held by the Office of Personnel Management, which handles federal employee records and government security clearances, making this breach, first detected in April, all the more troubling.

This is not the first time that the federal government has been targeted by hackers. Last year, the White House and State Department were compromised. Government officials believe those hackers to be Russian, but cyberattacks have originated in a number of countries and for a variety of reasons.

Americans are unfortunately becoming accustomed to information breaches, whether it is customer information stolen from Home Depot and Target, business secrets stolen from America’s biggest corporations or emails hacked from Sony Pictures.

As damaging and embarrassing as these criminal acts are, they point to possibly dangerous vulnerabilities to vital infrastructure controlled by computers connected to the Internet. The nation’s water supply, electric grids and transportation systems could be at risk.

Cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and sophisticated. The president and Congress must take immediate action to strengthen America’s cyber defenses before any of these worst-case scenarios can occur.