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 U.S. tries to protect self on crucial front

Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Constitution
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

National Guardsmen patrol the airport. Corporations screen their mail for suspicious 
packages. But as America tightens its defenses against chemical, biological and 
nuclear terrorism, there is mounting concern over one realm where national borders are 
still poorly defended: cyberspace.

As the unseen information "infrastructure" binds the country ever more tightly in its 
web of bits and bytes, experts fear that it presents an inviting, and all too 
vulnerable, target for terrorists and other criminals.

The Sept. 11 terrorists clearly had a working familiarity with computers, encrypted 
messages and the Internet. Mohamed Atta and other hijackers used laptop computers and 
Internet cafes for e-mail messages. Based on what is currently known, however, 
cyberspace was for them more a tool of terror than a target.

But experts say that just as those terrorists turned the nation's transportation 
system into an unexpected weapon of terror, the information highway could be both the 
means, and the objective, of future terrorist operations.

"Information technology pervades all aspects of our daily lives," says Tom Ridge, the 
Bush administration's director of homeland security. "Disrupt it, destroy it or shut 
it down, and you shut down America as we know it."

The world is now so heavily dependent on the "connectivity" of the Internet and other 
networks that any major disruptions can have far-reaching consequences.

More than 109 million computer systems are currently linked to the Internet. As the 
number grows daily, so do the speed and destructive capabilities of computer viruses 
and worms.

In 1999, the Melissa virus, initially launched by a New Jersey hacker from an X-rated 
Web site and spread around the world by e-mail, did an estimated $80 million in damage 
to corporate and government computer systems. A year later, the "I Love You" virus, 
which propagated in the Philippines, cost an estimated $10 billion in lost work time.

On Sept. 18, just seven days after the terrorist attacks, a new virus named Nimda 
virus (admin spelled backward) provided a new and more dramatic reminder of the 
vulnerabilities of the interconnected Net.

"Within an hour of the time it was first reported, numerous organizations were telling 
us that they were paralyzed by the worm," says Richard Pethia, director of the 
Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University, a federally funded 
clearinghouse for computer security information. "By the end of the day, more than 
100,000 computers had been affected."

Although all systems recovered, the specter of so many systems being brought to their 
knees so quickly, at such a critical time, underscored the dangers.

A new analysis by Symantec, which makes anti-virus software, last week warned that the 
next generation of Nimda-like viruses and worms might be even more devastating --- 
capable of using "mass-mailing" techniques that could infect every PC connected to the 
Internet within 20 minutes.

To improve the security of cyberspace, the Bush administration earlier this month 
appointed Richard Clarke, once the national counterterrorism coordinator in the 
Clinton White House, to be the president's special adviser for cyberspace security.

Clarke's task will be to prepare for what he calls "the war next time" by coordinating 
government and industry efforts on electronic security. "America has built cyberspace, 
and America must now defend its cyberspace," he warned.

His first action was to call for construction of a secure government voice and data 
network, called Govnet, to be used for critical government functions. If approved, the 
alternative to the Internet, which would be completely isolated from the commercial or 
private networks, would likely take years to build and cost billions of dollars.

Some experts dismiss the threat of cyberterrorism as a low-grade threat perpetrated by 
misguided hackers and electronic "ankle biters." Others see it as an "electronic Pearl 
Harbor" waiting to happen. But while many Americans might think of hacking, computer 
worms and fast-spreading viruses as a disruptive nuisance, in recent years, 
cyberattacks have begun to mirror the political tensions in the physical world.

During this year's dispute between the United States and China over the EP-3 spy 
plane, U.S. Internet sites were swamped by a wave of coordinated computer network 
intrusions that included the defacement of more than 1,200 Web sites. The sites 
included the White House, the U.S. Air Force and the Energy Department.

Michael Vatis, director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth 
College, a government-funded research center that focuses on counterterrorism and 
computer security, says the "massive and sustained weeklong campaign of cyberattacks" 
was organized by hacker groups that included the Honker Union of China and the Chinese 
Red Guest Network Technology.

"In light of the fact that these activities were highly visible and no arrests were 
made by Chinese officials, it can be assumed that they were at least tolerated, if not 
directly supported by Chinese authorities," Vatis says.

"What we saw coming out of China was a massive amount of hacking --- coordinated 
attacks that amounted to nothing less than low-grade information warfare," says Chris 
Ruland, the director of Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems X-Force, a team of 
elite computer security specialists who try to keep the company's 8,000 corporate 
customers one step ahead of cybercriminals.

ISS saw a spike in computer attacks on Sept. 11 that prompted the issuance of an 
"Alert-Con 3" warning to its customers that reflects increasing hacker attacks at what 
the company calls "unusually high levels" --- just one stage short of "a catastrophic 
problem" requiring "immediate, decisive action" by system operators.

"The past six months have witnessed a clear escalation in the number of politically 
motivated cyberattacks, often embroiling hackers from around the world in regional 
disputes," Vatis says. "Although initially relatively benign, recent attacks have 
increasingly targeted vital communications and infrastructure systems."

The first cyberattacks linked to the Sept. 11 attacks were actually aimed by 
pro-American hacker vigilantes against targets they believed were linked to terrorists.

In October, members of a hacker group calling itself Yihat, for Young Intelligent 
Hackers Against Terrorism, claimed to have penetrated the network of the Arab National 
Bank in Saudi Arabia, downloaded the account records of a few customers and promised 
to turn them over to the FBI. The bank has tightened its security.

Retaliation was swift. A Pakistani hacker group calling itself G-Force defaced two 
U.S. government Web sites --- leaving the equivalent of electronic graffiti --- and 
promised to attack hundreds more to protest the U.S. military raids in Afghanistan.

Other cyberattacks have been more serious.

Pakistani hacker groups have repeatedly penetrated computer systems operated by the 
Indian Parliament, the Indian Institute of Science, and the Bhabha Atomic Research 
Center, where they downloaded possibly sensitive research information. Indian hackers 
regularly sabotage Pakistani sites as well.

During NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999, Serbian hackers --- now believed 
to have been employed by the Yugoslav military --- mounted sustained cyberattacks on 
NATO servers that periodically brought them to a standstill.

And in the Middle East, as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have escalated 
in the streets, the tempo of attacks has also increased in cyberspace.

Israeli hackers have mounted sustained "denial of service" assaults --- shutting down 
Web sites by overloading them --- against the Palestinian Authority and the 
pro-Palestinian groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and released destructive computer worms 
and electronic Trojan horses against other Palestinian sites.

Palestinians have countered with a "cyberjihad" that temporarily shut down sites 
belonging to the Israeli Parliament, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Foreign Ministry 
and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. One group, operating under the name Unity, has 
outlined a four-phase strategy of escalation, which would eventually conclude with 
cyberattacks on communications systems and foreign targets.

In recent months, law enforcement authorities have been increasingly proactive in 
trying to head off more trouble in cyberspace.

Five days before the Sept. 11 attacks, 80 FBI and other federal agents raided the 
offices of InfoCom Inc., a Richardson, Texas, company that provided Internet service 
to 500 clients, many of them in the Middle East. The FBI shut down company Internet 
services and froze some of its bank accounts.

So far, authorities have not disclosed any motives for the raid, but InfoCom's 
attorney, Arch McColl, says the company is a merely a group of Palestinian "computer 
nerds" who are victims of guilt by association.

In early October, police from Scotland Yard shut down a "Jihad" Web operated by a 
London chef, 43-year-old Sulayman Balal Zainulabidin, who was charged under the 
British Terrorism Act with "providing training or instruction in the making of 
firearms, explosives or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons."

In the long run, new tactics may be needed to defend electronic frontiers.

One proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) calls for a pool of experts that would be on 
call to respond to any emergency.

"What this country needs is essentially a technology equivalent of the National 
Guard," Wyden says, a "National Emergency Technology Guard that in times of crisis 
would be in a position to mobilize our nation's information technology community to 

Others call for even more sweeping measures.

What is needed today is essentially a "Manhattan Project" for counterterrorism 
technology, says Vatis. "A significant portion of that effort should focus on 
technology to secure the information infrastructure that provides the foundation for 
much of our economy and national security."

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