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Are cyberterrorists for real?

Federal Computer Week

July 3, 2000
Web posted at: 11:03 a.m. EDT (1503 GMT)

(IDG) -- The debate over whether the United States faces imminent danger from cyberterrorist attacks took a new turn last week when the top defender of the nation's key information systems said "terrorism" may be too strong a word when describing potential cyberthreats.

Richard Clarke, national co-ordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said that while it would be a "tough call" to tell the difference between an attack by hackers and one launched by terrorists intent on disrupting national security, the administration's cyberdefense programs are battling a perception problem that stems from the misuse of the word terrorism.

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"Maybe we shouldn't be saying 'cyberterrorism.' Maybe we should be saying 'information warfare,'" said Clarke, who spoke at a conference on cyberattacks and critical infrastructure protection sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "In the end, you're going to know it when you see it," he said, referring to the difference between joy-riding hackers and state-sponsored cyberattacks.

Clarke's comments underscore a significant problem for the Clinton administration, which has failed to convince Congress to support some of its key cyberdefense initiatives including the Federal Cyber Services initiative, which would offer college students scholarships to study information security in return for government service.

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Experts agree that, to date, most of the major cybersecurity incidents are best described as nuisance attacks, although many fear that a devastating surprise attack, sometimes referred to as an "electronic Pearl Harbor," is inevitable.

This month, at a similar conference on Capitol Hill sponsored by The Brookings Institution, experts blamed a Cold War budget mentality for shortcomings in the government's information technology and security programs. Jeffrey Hunker, senior director for critical infrastructure protection at the NSC, said that although the government tries to be proactive, he believes that "we are going to get nailed seriously" sooner rather than later.

By not preparing for the worst-case scenario, we may be endangering the public's civil liberties, according to Clarke, who argued that "a lot of people are going to be willing to throw civil liberties out the window" in an effort to recover from an attack that cripples large portions of the nation's critical infrastructure.

Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former general counsel for the CIA and the National Security Agency, agreed that preparation is crucial, and, in the current legal system, defensive measures are more "workable" than offensive ones. Overall, however, cyber-defense "is not well understood and is not talked about sufficiently," she said.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Military Research and Development Subcommittee, said pretending the threats are not there is not a solution, and he criticized the Clinton administration for decreasing high-tech R and D spending. "We are seeing efforts by rogue groups to acquire encryption algorithms and sophisticated tools," said Weldon, who spoke last week at the GovTech 2000 convention in Washington, D.C. "The administration has lulled the American people into a false sense of security.

John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, agreed that the debate over the threat of cyberattacks to the nation's security has been overblown. Although something much larger than the recent denial-of-service attacks is likely on the horizon, Pike said he does not believe it will be anything like an electronic Pearl Harbor.

"I hope that [Clarke's comments] will get the debate out of the realm of cartoons and help people focus on real problems," he said. "Most of the time I feel like I'm watching a really bad cartoon."



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