Laura Micheletti Puaca: Shopping and the New National Security Frontier

Searching for Scientific WomanpowerToday we welcome a guest post from Laura Micheletti Puaca, author of Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980. During a period when anxiety about America’s supply of scientific personnel ran high and when open support for women’s rights generated suspicion, feminist reformers routinely invoked national security rhetoric and scientific “manpower” concerns in their efforts to advance women’s education and employment. Puaca brings to light the untold story of an important but largely overlooked strand of feminist activism. In the process, she reveals much about the history of American feminism, the politics of national security, and the complicated relationship between the two.

In today’s guest post, Puaca discusses how the recent identity theft of millions of Target customers brings home the importance of a national security policy that is increasingly shifting toward cybersecurity. 


I recently had my credit card information stolen. So did 40 million other Target shoppers, who made purchases at the end of November and beginning of December 2013. In the past few weeks, the Target corporation has revealed that the cybersecurity breach was even more far-reaching than initially understood, and that the personal information of another 70 million customers was compromised as well. Four additional retailers, including Neiman Marcus, have also reported cyber-violations during this same period. Although the extent has not yet been released, it is widely agreed that what one commentator has termed the “Holiday Hack Attack” represents one of the worst credit card data breaches in history.

In addition to shaking consumer confidence and threatening to wreak havoc on retailers’ reputations and bottom lines, these attacks provide an unsettling reminder of how vulnerable we are. The widespread use of information technology by the military, government, schools, financial institutions, transportation centers, and personal homes (to name just a few) means that nearly every aspect of American society is susceptible to cyber-violations. Hardly limited to the theft of individuals’ personal information, hacking threatens to undermine the nation’s economy and our general safety. Electrical grids, water processing facilities, stock exchanges, and weapons defense systems all depend on computer networks, and any malicious incursions could render disastrous results.

In light of these concerns, cybersecurity has emerged as a key public policy and national security issue. Although the defense of computer systems has long posed security challenges, it has taken on new visibility in the past decade. In October 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Cyber Security Alliance launched the first “National Cyber Security Awareness Month” in order to raise awareness of cybercrime and safety.  The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, established four years later by President George W. Bush in an effort to defend the United States and its computer networks, raised new questions and concerns about privacy protections. Portions of Bush’s plans were both expanded and made public by President Barack Obama who, shortly after assuming office, explained that cyberthreats constitute “the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” More recently, just two weeks before the Target breach, the new FBI director, James Comey, told Congress that cyber-attacks should be regarded as the top national security threat to the United States, and would likely surpass the risk posed by traditional international terrorist organizations.

The growing attention to cybersecurity also points to shifting conceptions of national security itself and what it means to be secure. As I waited on the phone for my credit card company to close my account, I realized that the threat of terrorists waging war against America from their laptops no longer seems so far-fetched. Aside from being a personal nuisance, what the Target attacks made evident is the need to recognize not just the dangers of bombs and hijackings but also the threat of data theft and digital manipulation. Rethinking the nature of terrorists attacks and the targets that might be selected is critical to our national security in the 21st century. Let us hope that there will not be a “Target moment” at the national level in the years ahead, and that a digital Pearl Harbor can be avoided.

Laura Micheletti Puaca is assistant professor of history at Christopher Newport University. Her bookSearching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980 will be published in June 2014.