Internet experts warn that the Worldwide Web has become a haven for organized crime and they say the threat of online terrorism is real. At a recent e-crime congress in London, a NATO official said online espionage and Internet-based terrorism represent some of the gravest threats to global security. VOA's Mandy Clark reports from London.
While people work hard on their computers - so too do the Internet viruses or malicious software known as malware. Cyber experts say hundreds of thousands of them bombard personal computers every day. Far from being a mere nuisance, these bugs threaten modern life.
British opposition lawmaker David Davis warned an e-crime conference in London that the danger of cyber terrorism is real.
"In America, hackers have already broken into the Pentagon's computer systems; in India, into government ministers' files; in Germany, into the chancellor's," Davis said. "Such attacks could be designed to compromise safety systems, critical national infrastructure, to overwhelm communication systems, or even to cause a run on the bank."
Last April, Estonia fell victim to cyber-terrorism. A barrage of spam and hacking paralyzed the former Soviet republic's banks and government.
James Finch is assistant director of the FBI's Cyber Division. He says governments are in a constant battle with cyber criminals.
"Unfortunately bad guys and their talents are maturing on the Internet, so it is a constant battle or challenge to stay ahead of the Internet criminal," Finch said.
NATO warns that the online terror threat will continue to grow as groups become increasingly aware of its potential. The military alliance says it considers internet terrorism to be a greater threat than a missile strike.
Cyber security expert Mikko Hyppönen says malware are making the Internet a more dangerous place.
"I think we have never seen as bad a situation as we are seeing right now," Hyppönen said. "We are getting more samples than ever before in the history of malware and many people are surprised by that because people see less outbreaks, but there are still more viruses being created. And the reason behind this is the virus writers have changed from the old hobby virus writers who did it for fun, to the professionals who do it to make money."
Ghost malware and other bugs are hidden deep within infected computers, allowing criminal gangs to silently gather personal information. The FBI's James Finch says there is a well-organized, Internet mafia.
"If there is a crime that is profitable on the Internet, it is safe to say that an organized group of people is probably carrying it out," Finch said. "We are looking at very structured organized groups, individuals who have never physically met, but are collaborating on the Internet globally.
Internet experts say they do not want people to pull the plug on their life online, but rather they caution them to stay vigilant, keep anti-virus software up-to-date and know the enemy.