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(BLOOMINGTON, Ind.) – Former national intelligence director Dan Coats says the battle against cyber criminals is “essentially a war,” and warns the U.S. needs to respond accordingly.

The former Indiana senator told an Indiana University cybersecurity conference the number of major cyberattacks has been growing exponentially for nearly two decades, most of them traceable to China, Russia, or Russian proxies. Because those attacks cross national borders and are often backed by foreign powers, Coats says the U.S. needs an agreement with its allies on how to respond. He says cybercriminals need to know they won’t escape punishment.

Coats declined to go into detail on how cyberattackers might be punished, saying it crosses into classified information. But he argues swift and severe response is the only way to stop the ransomware plague.

Coats observes he’s not the first intelligence leader to sound the alarm about cyberdangers. His predecessor, James Clapper, warned of a possible “cyber Armageddon,” while former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said as far back as 2012 that the U.S. risked a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Coats says they’re not exaggerating. He points to the ransomware attack which shut down a major gas pipeline in May, noting if it had happened in January instead, the effect on northeastern states which depend on gas heat could have been catastrophic.

Coats says Russian attacks on the 2016 election, attempts to interfere again in 2018, and the SolarWinds hack which unlocked mountains of federal government data last year show the seriousness of the problem.

Coats says it’s not just the government that needs to beef up cybersecurity. He says private companies need to recognize they’re targets, and one click away from being victims.

Coats credits the Biden administration with declaring cybersecurity a top priority and placing two top officials at the head of the effort. But he says the administration needs to follow through, not merely pay lip service to the issue. And he says the White House needs to work with Congress, businesses, and universities on cyberdefense.