The September terrorist attacks against the United States have focused national attention on threats to the country's critical infrastructure, including its computer and information networks. President Bush has appointed a special assistant to unify the government's efforts to improve U.S. information security.
Cyberspace - the information and computer network that controls and facilitates much of the modern economy - is constantly under attack. Thieves, saboteurs and thrill seekers frequently break in to steal data, disturb service, launch computer viruses, conduct fraudulent transactions and harass people and businesses.
This unorganized mayhem already costs economies countless millions of dollars. But what if Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group made a concerted effort to interrupt the databases and connections on which finance, transportation, public utilities, governments, emergency services, communications and so many other sectors rely?
The thought makes Terry Benzel shudder. She is the vice-president of the U.S. computer software company Advanced Security Research Networks.
"The threats are extensive and serious. These systems are extremely vulnerable," she says. "A cyber threat taken in conjunction with a physical threat of terrorism as we have witnessed is beyond frightening."
Ms. Benzel testified recently before the U.S. House of Representatives' Science Committee, whose chairman, Sherwood Boehlert, summarized the problem.
"American society has become vastly more dependent on computers and the Internet in recent years, making us more vulnerable to criminal or terrorist attacks," says Mr. Boehlert. "Yet research and development on computer security have not kept pace with the growing significance of the threat."
Experts say few resources are devoted to U.S. cybersecurity. The president of the National Academy of Engineering, University of Virginia professor William Wulf, complains that, while the country mobilizes specialists in biological, chemical, and other kinds of warfare, there are few cybersecurity professionals to choose from.
"Our research base in computer security and network security is miniscule. There is a very tiny group of researchers in universities developing any kind of long-term response to the sorts of threats we're talking about," he says.
Mr. Wulf blames lack of funding. What money is available is scattered among only a few donating federal government agencies, such as the defense and space agencies. Another problem has been lack of incentive. Terry Benzel notes that the software industry has focused, not surprisingly, on profitable consumer products.
"Consumer industry has been very slow to adapt to security. What sells continues to be ease of use and performance, and so it's difficult to take security seriously," says Mr. Benzel.
The September terrorist attacks have changed that attitude, but the cybersecurity problem is considered too massive for any one sector to handle. A special advisory commission on terrorism the House of Representatives created in 1998 says all sectors of U.S. society must work together. The panel's chair is Virginia Governor James Gilmore.
"Security against cyber attacks will require far greater coordination and cooperation between private companies, the federal and state government agencies, universities, and law enforcement," says Governor Gilmore. " It will require entirely new protocols and an unprecedented level of trust and cooperation."
In this vein, President Bush has just ordered creation of a board representing major federal agencies to study ways to protect cyberspace. The president's new advisor for cybersecurity, Richard Clark, will lead it with special orders to reach out to business and local governments.
Governor Gilmore's terrorism commission has advice for the board. It recommends establishment of a nonprofit body to oversee private and public cybersecurity coordination and another entity to supervise research, development, and testing of methods to enhance cybersecurity.
Governor Gilmore also recommends a review and updating of laws relating to the issue, and advocates creation of a special court devoted to investigating and prosecuting cybercrimes.
"The Internet and information technologies are the tools of freedom and enablement," the governor says. " We must move swiftly to protect those tools and the freedom and liberties they represent."