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  • Maria Aspan,

Valerie Plame on the 'Scary' State of Cybersecurity

Sony. The Internal Revenue Service. Ashley Madison. Cyber warfare has gone nuclear.

So says Valerie Plame, the former covert CIA agent who spent her intelligence career working against the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Now she’s taking on a new task: helping government agencies and companies stem the relentless flood of hacker attacks.

“There’s a huge impact on national security and intelligence,” says Plame, who this spring became an adviser to cybersecurity startup Global Data Sentinel. “The new normal is going to be more and more of these hacks, whether it’s Target or Home Depot or the Office of Personnel Management or Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos.”

Not that she’s abandoned her interest in nuclear weapons. Plame, who works with disarmament non-profits Global Zero and Plowshares Fund, endorsed the recent Iran nuclear deal--and had harsh words for some of its critics, Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker in particular.

“I am fully supportive of [the Iran deal]. I believe it is a good deal--it’s not perfect, but by its very nature, an agreement is going to be a compromise,” she says. “The options are war versus peace, and I am delighted that so far it appears that peaceful negotiation has won the day.”

The deal’s critics include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many Senate Republicans, and Wisconsin governor Walker, who recently said he would reverse the deal “on day one” if he becomes president. Plame singled out that comment for particular scorn.

“What does Scott Walker know about nuclear policy? There is strong bipartisan consensus among nuclear policy experts that this is a good deal so... eyeroll,” she says. “Those who have been seriously arguing against it, critical of it, they have nothing better to offer in its place, except war.”

Walker’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other White House Cabinet members on Thursday appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, to present the Obama administration’s case for the deal.

Plame’s covert identity was blown in 2003 by journalist Robert Novak, using information leaked by aides to George W. Bush. Given that history, she’s particularly concerned about the recently disclosed breaches of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)--even if that’s been eclipsed this week by the more salacious-sounding hacker attack on Ashley Madison, the website for people seeking extramarital affairs.

“As long as you’re not involved with it, it sounds funny,” says Plame, who started laughing when informed of the Ashley Madison attack. “The things that keep me up at night are things like [hackers] getting into the software system of a nuclear site.”

But she later added by email: “THIS will get the public’s attention--even if the OPM hack doesn’t!”

That agency's data breaches this spring exposed information on more than 21 million people, some 7 percent of Americans. Worse, the affected data is more sensitive than the by-now-routine names and emails and credit card data that most of us have come to expect will be stolen by cybercriminals at some point in time. The hacked OPM records contained background investigation information on federal employees and job applicants, including information about their family members and potentially even their mental health and financial history.

That makes the OPM data breach the “most dangerous in terms of national security or intelligence,” Plame says. “The information that is held there is very sensitive. It’s not just federal employee applicants and employees--it’s their spouses, their family, their neighbors, their landlords. So this is a gold mine for those who would want to target federal employees.”

The U.S. government has decided not to publicly assign blame for the attack, although top intelligence officials had previously called China “the leading suspect.” The attacks mean that the cybercriminals could now have access to detailed information about every member of Congress--which keeps its records at OPM, according to Plame.

“This is a spy thriller,” she says. “You have a foreign government with everything--medical history, psychological history, everything on a sitting Senator.”

And while that’s her most pressing concern, Plame acknowledges that private-sector data breaches have the potential to be equally damaging in the long run.

“From a counter-intelligence viewpoint, the OPM breach is really scary--but if we continue to see the erosion of purely commercial enterprises, where people lose confidence, the economy falters,” she says. “Whether it’s a private website, a commercial website or whether it is government owned, it’s part and parcel of the same concern, and it is our national security.”

Plame in May joined the advisory board of Global Data Sentinel, a New York-based firm founded in 2014 by John-Philip Galinski and Nigel Walker. She says she got involved when she was approached by Chairman Steve Fadem about 18 months ago, after she gave a talk in Chicago.

Her role as an adviser is “not clearly defined,” but Plame says she plans to bring her intelligence background to bear on the new threat of cyber attacks: “What happened with OPM is jaw-dropping in terms of its implications,” she says. “This whole issue of cyber warfare, for lack of a better phrase right now, is only going to get worse before it gets better.”

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