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'Frontline' exposes chilling threat of cyber attacks

(BY Glenn Garvin)

The wear-and-tear on our psyches was supposed to decline with the end of the Cold War. Instead, the list of things to worry about just gets longer: Hijacked airplanes. Anthrax. Rogue states with nukes or chemical weapons. Whatever strange mental illness possessed that Iraqi information minister. Now Frontline has come up with one more: an attack on the Internet.

At first blush, that doesn't sound terribly threatening^; however much we might miss Hong Kong porn and the Drudge Report, life would go on. But through somber interviews with techies and industry security chiefs, Frontline makes it clear much more is at stake.

Everything from traffic lights to the Wall Street trading floors is wired to the Internet and vulnerable to cyber attacks. A cyber assault on the computerized switching in America's power grid could conceivably leave most of the country without electricity for six months, one security chief warns.

Or what if the computerized floodgates on the nation's dams started opening without warning? If that sounds fanciful, Frontline reports, an al Qaeda computer captured in Afghanistan contained models of dams and programs that analyze them. ''We've reached the threshold of the day when computer attacks can cause real-world bloodshed, can damage actual physical structures in the world,'' notes one of the experts.

Al Qaeda's interest in cyber terrorism has been established beyond a doubt through interrogation of prisoners and examination of captured computers. But there may be other rogues lurking in the digital twilight.

Security experts already have identified several full-scale attacks through the Internet: one general onslaught that shut down 300,000 computer servers in just 15 minutes, disabling 911 systems and automated tellers^; one aimed at the White House^; and the unleashing of a so-called worm the week after the Sept. 11 attacks that blitzed corporate computers to the tune of $3 billion in damage.

Most chilling of all was a two-year cat-and-mouse game with the computer defenses at the Pentagon that apparently originated someplace in the former Soviet Union.

The invasion of the Pentagon's system -- code named Moonlight Maze by the FBI, which investigated it -- wasn't turned back until the intruders had downloaded tens of thousands of files on military installations and weapons designs.

Even so, we may have gotten off lightly: In a 1997 Defense Department war game designed to test its own security, the Pentagon completely lost control of its computers, including those in the national military command center.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, many military thinkers continue to deride the threat of cyber attack as a ''weapon of mass distraction'' that will never rise above the level of annoyance. Frontline reports their arguments dutifully, if not altogether convincingly. They reminded me of friends who, a few years ago, scoffed at al Qaeda as a few mad mullahs hiding out in caves. Nothing we needed to worry about.

Source: www.miami.com

Cybercrime News Archive

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