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Feds take steps against threat of cyber terrorism

September 25, 1998
Web posted at 12:05 PM EDT

by Elizabeth Wasserman

(IDG) -- The Soviet Union once aimed their missiles at U.S. nuclear silos. When the Cold War ended, terrorists struck at emblematic institutions such as airlines, embassies and the World Trade Center. Now, as the world enters the Information Age, the nation's enemies may go after cyber targets.

That's why the federal government is in the first stages of assessing the nation's telecommunications and information vulnerabilities, anticipating that foes may look to strike Internet "network access points" instead of submarines and missile silos.

Government officials and members of the private sector meet for the first time Friday to start locating vulnerability points to potential cyber or physical attacks. The study, which may take years to complete, aims to recommend ways to eliminate those weak spots, create a system for identifying and preventing attacks, and prepare for attacks through training and education.

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This study stems from a presidential directive, signed in May, that created a Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office. The office will oversee the development of the first national plan to protect the services that the country depends on daily. But so many of those services transportation, banking and finance, electric power, emergency services and so on are becoming increasingly reliant on telecommunications and information components.

"It's kind of like a farmer who goes out after the winter storm looking to see where the fences are down and where the herd can get out," said Larry Irving, head of the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the telecom study. "It is kind of like surveying the situation. This is a new frontier for us. There's a new infrastructure out there. And we're much more dependent on this infrastructure than we've ever been or ever expected to be."

But Irving acknowledges that he needs the cooperation of private industry in order to conduct a thorough analysis of the infrastructure of a variety of industries: telephone, information technology, cable, satellite, paging, wireless, and even the broadcasting industry, which runs the emergency broadcast system.

While the meeting is open to the public, the results of the government study will not. In fact, in order to win the private sector's cooperation, government officials pledge that they won't keep information on file or divulge it to those who might exploit it.

"One of the things have to do is identify and remedy the situation," Irving said. "On the other hand, we want to make sure we're not putting information out there that could be used by terrorists or competitors. The last thing we want to do is create that road map."

The high-tech and telecommunications industries have recently been at odds with government on such issues as the export of encryption technology, and laws requiring telephone carriers to modify their equipment so law enforcement can carry out wiretaps over digital switches. But Irving said he is trying to foster the spirit of cooperation with industry in a comparable way to the work being done to remedy the year 2000 computer problem.

And the private sector may not have much choice. U.S. policy-makers in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in national security roles say the threat of information weapons coming not only from terrorist operatives but also from foreign governments is a very real potential danger. The targeting of infrastructure facilities through the use of widely available cracking techniques could disable such network-connected services as electric power, banking and telephone. The vulnerability of both government systems and those in private industry has been underscored by the slew of attacks this year on everything from Pentagon computers to The New York Times' Web site.

As the telecommunications structure is changing rapidly, Irving acknowledges that his agency's study will be a snapshot in time. But it will alert both government and private industry to the need for building protections into information and telecommunications systems. "We built an entire system of sidewalks with no curb carve-outs," he said. "If you're building the protections in as you go along, it's much easier."

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