Preparing for a Cyber-Assault

Fortification of the Web has become a top priority

With U.S. and British forces bombing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's training camps inside Afghanistan, U.S. officials are bracing for other terrorists attacks. But it's not just physical attacks they're worried about. Law enforcement and security experts are increasingly concerned that the U.S. and its allies could be in for cyber-assaults as well. Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI issued a warning to tighten computer security. And on Sept. 22, the Institute for Security Technology Studies, a government-funded research organization at Dartmouth College, put out a report warning that cyber-attacks, ranging from defacing Web sites to undermining America's critical information systems, could be launched by terrorists or hacker sympathizers.

No one expects a digital Armageddon. But the guardians of the Net are on alert. On Oct. 1, the FBI, along with private security experts, took the unusual step of publicizing the top 20 ways that hackers tamper with computer systems. The goal: Make companies aware of potential weaknesses so they know what steps to take. Richard D. Pethia, director of the CERT Centers, a government-funded computer security organization run by Carnegie Mellon University, took a similar message to Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, testifying that hacker tools are getting more sophisticated and easier to use. Couple that with a recent General Accounting Office report noting that computer systems at all 24 federal agencies it probed are "riddled with weaknesses," and it's no wonder that on Oct. 9 the Bush Administration appointed Richard Clarke, head of the government's counterterrorism efforts, as Special Advisor for Cyberspace Security.

This is not war games. Officials are worried that tech-savvy terrorists could do serious damage. In June, hackers were able to gain access to a California company that distributes power. Last October, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian hackers launched a cyber-skirmish. The attacks on Israel, dubbed a cyber-jihad by the pro-Palestinian hackers, escalated from defacing Web sites with images of children mutilated by war to shutting down such sites as the Bank of Israel's. "You more or less have to believe that any significant terrorist or criminal organization will have cyber-capabilities," says Jeffrey Hunker, dean of the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University and a former National Security Council member.

So far, no major cyber-attacks have been launched. But security experts fear that could change because vulnerable systems on the Net can be sabotaged in hours by a determined foe. "These people are very sophisticated in their ability to plan, execute, and use the latest technology," says Elad Yoran, executive vice-president for Riptech Inc., an Internet security company.

The recent Nimda worm underscores the Net's vulnerability. On Sept. 18, the worm, a virus-like program that replicates itself, infected and shut down 100,000 computers within 24 hours. Future worms could have "sleeper" commands that would coordinate widespread activation of the virus with a conventional terrorist attack.

The events of September 11 have experts reevaluating previous notions about computer security. Now it's up to the cyber-cops and vigilant corporations to protect against the type of terrorism that comes at the speed of light down a fiber-optic cable.

By Ira Sager in New York, with John Carey in Washington and Jim Kerstetter in San Mateo, Calif.

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