Recent attacks on computer systems operating on the Internet, such as last month's assault on U.S. government systems, which is believed to have been instigated by North Korea, and the attack last week that disrupted service on the popular Twitter network show the vulnerability of cyber space. Many experts are worrying about what might come next and are urging the government to take preventive measures to defend America's vital infrastructure.
Experts say the August 6 attacks that briefly shut down the Twitter and Facebook social networking websites were aimed at silencing a Georgian blogger who is critical of Russia's military incursion into his country last year. Large scale cyber assaults against Chechnya and Georgia preceded Russia's military actions there.
The open nature of the Internet and its use by governments and business make it a rich target for an enemy attacks.
Retired U.S. Air Force General Harry Raduege served on the commission that provided President Obama with recommendations on how to best protect the United States from cyber attacks. He spoke to the World Affairs Council in Houston earlier this month about the dangers and costs of cyber assaults.
"It is estimated that $1 trillion worth of data was stolen, globally, in the year 2008," he said.
General Raduege later spoke about how countries and private businesses can protect themselves.
"What you really have to do is manage the risk. We are vulnerable to these attacks. It is naïve to think that we are always going to be able to keep the attackers out of our network; you have to assume they are in," he added.
He says the more advanced a country is in its use of computers and the Internet, the more vulnerable it may be.
"The nation of Estonia was brutally attacked through cyber activity, where there was a directed denial of service through flooding that nation, which is very digitally advanced, with 5,000 e-mails a second," he said.
Raduege says one of his biggest concerns in Houston is the computer-run electronic control system that is vital to energy sector operations the country depends on.
"Someone could attack the industrial control systems that control all the valves, all the distribution systems, and are used to turn on and off various aspects involved with energy and the electrical power grid and oil and gas distribution networks," he said.
U.S. government and military officials are working on better cyber-defense systems and trying to coordinate efforts.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says one of the biggest challenges is finding the right people to handle the job.
"How are we going to grow, recruit and retain experts or cyber cops and experts in cyber security. In other words, where are the personnel going to come from," she asked.
She says the government will need the best people it can find to outsmart the cyber bad guys.
"How do we get creative and think not just of what they have done, but what they are going to do next and next and next," asked Napolitano.
But the homeland security secretary says the U.S. government must also take care not to intrude on citizen privacy as it ramps up its defense of the worldwide electronic network government agencies, businesses and individuals increasingly depend on.