Alarm bells began clanging on Capitol Hill last week about yet another potential threat to national security: cyber-terrorism. As a government panel testified last week, the protections for the networks of U.S. agencies and businesses are "riddled with weaknesses." A cyber-terrorist attack would not carry the shock and carnage of Sept. 11. But in this information age, when computers run everything from power grids to flight systems and stock markets, such an attack could be more widespread and just as economically destructive.
There is no public evidence that terrorists are planning cyber-attacks, and some of the experts who warn of digital doom may be trying to drum up business for themselves, as some computer security consultants did by exaggerating the "Y2K" computer threat in 1999. But there's no denying a dramatic rise in cyber-attacks in recent months.
As Joel C. Willemssen of the General Accounting Office told Congress last week, cyber-attacks in the last two months alone have "affected millions of computer users, shut down Web sites, slowed Internet service and disrupted business and government operations. They have already reportedly caused billions of dollars of damage, and their full effects have yet to be completely assessed."
For instance, in July the "Code Red" computer worm infected thousands of government computers, forcing the White House to change its Web site address to avoid the worm, compelling the Pentagon to briefly shut down its public Web sites, infecting the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service and delaying FedEx package deliveries. Cyber-attacks are growing not only more frequent but more sophisticated. While it took several days for the Code Red worm to infect government computers three months ago, the "Nimda" worm that infected more than 100,000 government and business computers two weeks ago managed to destabilize networks within hours.