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Americans Fear Cyberattacks From Terrorists, Study Shows

Source: The Washigton Post
Ellen McCarthy
Date: September 03, 2003

Cyberattacks Nearly half of all Americans surveyed say they are worried that terrorists could launch attacks through the networks connecting home computers and powerful utilities, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found. Some industry analysts consider this level of concern a triumph of sorts, signifying that their lobbying efforts and public awareness campaigns have had an effect. "I think the American people have turned out to be very smart about these issues," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "They've learned and heard about it . . . and in too many cases have experienced real technical problems themselves."

The Pew study, based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults, found that 11 percent of those surveyed are very worried, and 38 percent are somewhat worried, about a digital attack. The survey was taken in early August, before the northeastern blackout occurred and before several damaging viruses afflicted computers throughout the country. Because of those events, the level of awareness concerning cyberterrorism might be even higher today, said Lee Rainie, director of the project. "There has been a tremendous amount of press attention focused on it. And in the past 18 months, the technology industry has become very focused on it. I think that's now filtered into the wider public," Rainie said.

The survey also found that after any type of terrorist attack, most people plan to turn to their television for immediate information. About a quarter of Americans would use radio as a second source of information, followed by news Web sites and reports from friends and family. While it's important for Americans to know about the possibility of cyberterrorism, the bigger challenge comes in persuading them to take steps that could possibly prevent it, some industry experts said.

"The risk for cyberterrorism is very difficult to assess. We know that there are a number of plausible scenarios that either an attack that would have a cyber component or a cyberattack that would have a very large effect," said Thomas A. Longstaff, manager of the CERT Coordination Center, an Internet security research organization in Pittsburgh. "The ultimate goal is motivation for people to protect the systems under their control. We're trying to get to the point where people can protect themselves from having their computers used in an attack of national significance."

Large corporations have become more proactive in buying network security technology, Longstaff said, but personal computers without updated software and filters could also be used as launching sites for larger cyberattacks.

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