A shaky cyber foundation

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, Wednesday, July 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Since the invention of the Internet, the wealth of the nation has been entrusted to digital systems that increase productivity and ease of access. Unfortunately those data can be stolen — in some cases more easily than robbing a bank. Meanwhile, networks can crash, interrupting important services. These vulnerabilities increasingly threaten the nation’s economy and security. They must be eliminated.

Part of the problem is poor design. The New York Stock Exchange erred while introducing a new software program, prompting the exchange to shut down trading for more than three hours on Wednesday. Thankfully, other electronic exchanges made it possible for trading to continue.

A United Airlines computer system crashed, also on Wednesday, grounding several thousand flights. Both incidents appear to be self-inflicted wounds, though questions linger. At this point, the lesson is that greater attention must be paid to reliability of hardware and software.

The same can be said of cyber security. The sophistication of criminal and hostile government attacks on commercial and governmental computer systems has reached a high degree of proficiency. Those with outdated computer systems are woefully unprepared to defend themselves.

Example A is the federal Office of Personnel Management, where data containing personal details of about 22 million Americans employed by the government and industry were stolen over the last year in sophisticated attacks, very possibly by the government of China with hostile intent. The files contain information that could help hackers gain access to intelligence and military secrets. On Friday, OPM director Katherine Archuleta belatedly resigned because of the cyber breach.

A third crash Wednesday, of The Wall Street Journal’s Internet site, remains under investigation. It may have a technical explanation. Or it may have been the work of hackers.

On Tuesday an anarchist organization of hackers called Anonymous claimed that Wednesday would be a bad day for Wall Street, though so far no evidence has surfaced to indicate its involvement.

But as FBI Director James Comey told Congress Wednesday, “In my business, you don’t love coincidences.”

A first step toward improving the nation’s cyber defenses is sharing information on threats. According to the Symantec Corporation, last year nearly one million new cyber threats were issued daily.

The House has passed legislation authorizing companies to share computer security information with each other and the federal government. The Senate also needs to act on it.

Stopping hackers has become as important as keeping secrets in wartime. Everything from the security of one’s bank account to the nation’s defenses now depends on a disciplined national effort to stop cyber theft.