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By: General Norton A. Schwartz, USAF (Ret.), President & CEO of BENS

Topic: Nexus of Business & National Security

Updated: May 11, 2015

The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women and children. The fronts are everywhere…The front line runs through the factories.

—Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1940) 

Addressing the House of Commons in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed that in the new age of total warfare, Great Britain’s civil society and businesses were no longer removed from the warfront, but that instead “the front line runs through the factories.” In making this observation, the Prime Minister’s message was clear: confronted by a new and significant challenge, responsibility for ensuring their nation’s security was vested with all Britons, and that only by synchronizing the efforts of the public, civil, and business sectors was victory attainable. Powerful as these words were at the time, they remain equally prescient today. 

Today the United States is confronted by an increasingly complex and shifting array of national security challenges, ranging from an assertive Russia to the spread of violent extremism and persistent cyber threats. Many of these challenges are too complex for the U.S. government to address alone, requiring our Nation’s public and private sectors to confront them together and work collaboratively in support of our national security.

Indeed, as the owner and operator of over 85% of our critical national infrastructure, the private sector can play a significant role in confronting these challenges. For example, American companies have helped to sustain economic sanctions against Russia and Iran by refraining from doing business with specific entities. The result in part: Iran’s oil exports have been reduced by half to just 1 million barrels per day and as of February the Russian ruble was down 46%.

Technology and social media companies are also key partners in preventing the spread of violent extremist ideology. In February, representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google all attended a White House-sponsored summit on countering violent extremism, and in recent months Twitter has suspended as many as 2,000 extremist accounts. As groups such as the so-called Islamic State continue to use social media to spread their virulent ideology, it will be important to collaborate with technology companies to identify extremist users and constrain their ability to incite violence.

Increasingly, the private sector must also confront national security challenges in a more direct manner; namely, as the primary target of state and non-state actors. Nowhere is this truer than in cyberspace, where over 60% of all targeted cyber-attacks affected small and medium-sized companies last year.

In 2014 the average annual cost of cybercrime to a U.S. company was estimated to be $12.7 million. However, what is less quantifiable is the damage a successful cyber-attack can have on a company’s reputation, competitiveness, and ability to innovate. A North Korean attack on Sony Corporation may also portend a worrisome new trend in which private companies are viewed as acceptable targets for nation states to coerce and vent political grievances.

It is here, in cyberspace, where close collaboration between the public and private sectors is essential, and it is also where encouraging progress is being made. Already, private companies are working with the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Secret Service—among other federal agencies—to share cyber threat information and respond to cyber intrusions. Other entities, such as private sector Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs), afford an alternative, if imperfect, method of sharing information among industry sectors. In fact, American Express has called the financial services ISAC “one of the best tools any company can have when it comes to cyber protection.”

Recently, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a series of new initiatives aimed at leveraging the combined expertise of the public and private sectors to manage cyber threats. As Secretary Carter stated, “in addition to dangers, there are also really great opportunities to be seized through a new level of partnership between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley – opportunities that we can only realize together.” 

Encouragingly, the private sector understands this as well. John Donahoe, President & CEO of eBay Inc., recently stated “when you step back and look at the role of a company versus the role of a government, clearly if we’re going to provide the safest possible experience in aggregate, government and companies need to work together.”

Indeed, as the United States navigates the complex threat environment before it, close collaboration with the private sector will be critical. This collaboration will require private sector leaders to appreciate their potential for helping to ensure our national security, and government leaders to effectively leverage and complement the unique capabilities of our private sector.

Seventy-five years ago Winston Churchill proclaimed that “the fronts are everywhere.” Although the scale of the challenges confronting us today are much less grave, threats such as violent extremism and cyber have blurred the distinction among national security and the private sector. And yet, while the scale has changed, the prescription for confronting them remains the same: determined collaboration between all segments of our society.

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