In the bad old days of the Cold War, people worried about missile silos in the Soviet Union.

In the emerging world of cyber-warfare, the biggest threats may come from nests of sophisticated computer hackers in Shanghai, Pyongyang or Damascus.

Enhancing cybersecurity to protect against threats from abroad, as well as close to home, is a national priority that touches just about everyone in our digital age. The risks can range from breaches of department store credit card data to attacks on America’s lifelines – including its energy grid, its water supply, its health-care institutions and its financial institutions.

Harnessing the brain power of University of Wisconsin researchers to better address cybersecurity and related issues is why a bipartisan list of state legislators, led by Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, is sponsoring Assembly Bill 729. That bill establishes a process under which the university may accept contracts or grants tied to classified or sensitive research.

It’s an approach that will allow qualified UW researchers to engage on a pressing national security issue – one so large that President Obama and Congress have managed to find common ground – while safeguarding academic freedoms and attracting grants and contracts that currently fly over Wisconsin.

Read Milwaukee Journal Sentinel version of Tom Still’s column here

Hardly a day passes without a headline that speaks to the need for greater cybersecurity, from potential snooping on personal information by government and private sources to threats from abroad.

Reports that surfaced last year continue to tie corporate data thefts to China, perhaps even to units of the People’s Liberation Army itself. Experts say cyber-attacks on the nation’s power grid have already been launched from inside China and Iran, basically on the theory that the quickest way to shut down the economy and hamper the U.S. military is to turn out the lights.

The U.S. Defense Department spent about $100 million repairing cyber-warfare damage during a six-month period ending in early 2009, according to the U.S. Strategic Command, and the size of the threat hasn’t grown any smaller.

Meanwhile, the FBI estimates that billions of U.S. dollars are lost each year to foreign and domestic competitors who target flourishing industries and technologies, and who cull intelligence out of shelved technologies by exploiting open source data and company trade secrets. Much of that occurs through cyber-attacks.

Hackers have hit thousands of U.S. companies in the last few years, including Twitter, Facebook, Coca-Cola and Apple, but few publicly admit it for fear of looking weak to competitors, customers and shareholders. Stolen data may include proprietary processes, blueprints, contact lists and, in the case of government data, national security information.

During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama noted the growing threat of cyber-attacks, saying “we cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

The good news: Wisconsin researchers can help. At the UW-Madison, the Software Assurance Marketplace has already been established by the Morgridge Institute for Research in partnership with two other Big Ten universities. Armed with a $23.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the project will focus on rooting out software vulnerabilities that can leave doors open for hackers.

The SWAMP project, as it’s called, will generally amass open-source solutions for unclassified private-sector needs. There are other UW researchers, however, with the skills to conduct projects that would remain classified to help protect national security or national economic interests.

At present, it’s tough for those researchers to do their work in Wisconsin – which means the university misses opportunities for grants and contracts. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., is the nation’s No. 1 research university in terms of its annual budget, precisely because it has established an off-campus way to conduct such research.

A revised process for accepting classified research would be good for the university in other ways:

n It would expand the ability of the state’s R&D universities to attract classified research at a time when time when over sources of competitive federal research dollars are stagnant or declining.
n It expands the ability of federal private contractors, both within and outside Wisconsin, to form R&D partnerships with state campuses to help meet classified research and development needs.
n It furthers the growth of a cyber-security industry in Wisconsin by providing training and internships for students who are now forced to go outside Wisconsin to pursue such careers. That’s vital in a state with a large health care and financial services base.

Scheduled for a public hearing Monday, Assembly Bill 729 would help free up some of the state’s brightest minds to help build a 21st century line of defense. The Assembly and Senate should pass it as soon as possible.