AUSTIN -- In the 1995 movie "Hackers," a team of tech-savvy youngsters stop a digital thief from stealing millions of dollars by "out-hacking" the hacker.
What made for futuristic Hollywood flash more than 15 years ago is serious business today. At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the Air Force Cyber Command can launch electronic attacks from across the globe.
"We used to talk about it in terms of the future, but cyber warfare is here now," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), co-founder of the Congressional Cyber Security Caucus. When it comes to offensive capabilities, McCaul says the U.S. is on the cutting edge, but cyber defense lags behind. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the nation could be on the path towards a "cyber Pearl Harbor."
"It could cause more economic damage than 9/11," McCaul told KVUE. "You had the Pentagon, you had the World Trade Center, but imagine the entire financial sector being shut down, banks being shut down. Imagine the energy sector being shut down, blackouts in the Northeast. It could really cripple this nation."
Earlier this month, Iranian hackers successfully disrupted the websites of several of the largest U.S. banks, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. In addition, McCaul says blueprints for the F-35 joint strike fighter were stolen by hackers in China to develop defense systems and their own version of the fighter.
The government is also concerned with organizations such as Wikileaks, founded by hacker-activist Julian Assange, which publish classified information leaked from government sources.
"It's a spy versus spy kind of world," said Ken Phillips, business development manager at Overwatch Textron Systems. The Austin-based business is developing the latest line of defense against cyber threats, which focuses on security at the file level in order to overcome internal leaks or systems that have been compromised.
In a presentation for McCaul and members of the media, Phillips explained the basic features of the program software. The concentration on creating files which know "where they belong" and "who they belong to" allows administrators to track files even after they've been smuggled, or "exfiltrated," from secure computers.
After being copied onto an unauthorized computer, the file deletes itself and communicates back its whereabouts for investigation into how and by whom it was compromised.
"It's incredibly difficult," Phillips said of keeping up with cyber criminals' tactics. "The bad guys are always figuring out a way to circumvent the last, best measure that we have to protect the data."
"That's why I'm here today," said McCaul. "To talk about ways to protect not only data within the federal government but also the private sector, which controls 90 percent of these critical infrastructures."
One thing is certain, the cyber front of modern warfare will only expand. Whether the U.S. is prepared to meet and return cyber threats may well depend upon the priority both public and private leaders place on security.
"I think it's going to become a greater force in terms of warfare," said McCaul. "We'll always have kinetic warfare, that means the military, boots on the ground, but you're going to see cyber warfare as a bigger piece to that in the future."
It's a future that, unlike the movies, remains to be written.