Americans Concerned About Cyberattacks
Source: The East Carolinian
Date: September 05, 2003
ORLANDO, Fla. - Americans are increasingly worried that terrorists could launch cyberattacks against banks, transportation networks and other critical systems, a new survey shows.
And technology experts say those fears are grounded in reality.
"I think there is an 80 percent probability we could see an attack in the next two years," said Paul Henry, vice president of CyberGuard Corp., an Internet security firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"We know the expertise is out there among hackers and terrorists. It's simply a question of the will of terrorists to launch an attack."
One in two adults expressed concern about the vulnerability of national infrastructure to terrorist hackers in a poll conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and released Sunday.
The poll of 1,001 adults was taken in early August, before the recent power blackout and plague of Internet bugs that disrupted e-mail communications.
"I think the wariness and anxiety we found would be even higher if we had been in the field during those events," said Pew Director Lee Rainie. "This is such a wired, networked world, people just expect everything to work. We are hardly aware of how dependent we are until something fails and all hell breaks loose."
Timing aside, concerns about attacks by Web-savvy terrorists shouldn't be discounted, said several tech experts.
Henry suggested terrorists could launch a double-barreled assault, combining physical destruction such as a bomb blast on a building with a computer attack on a nearby drawbridge, making it difficult for emergency officials to raise the bridge and respond.
Richard Ford, research professor at the Center for Information Assurance at the Florida Institute of Technology, echoed Henry's concern.
He also said a cyberattack is a matter of when, not if. And the nation's level of preparedness is low, as demonstrated by the recent Blaster worm that attacked e-mail systems globally.
Despite a warning from Microsoft in July about the need to fix, or patch, computer systems, a hacker was able to cause massive e-mail snarls.
"Blaster was utterly predictable, yet hundreds of thousands of systems were still vulnerable, and I find that very worrying," Ford said.
Even more worrisome is the way the nation's infrastructure is interconnected, said Winn Schwartu, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based security expert and author of the book "Information Warfare: Chaos on the Electronic Superhighway."
He described an incident in Brooklyn, N.Y., several years ago. A fire in a wastebasket triggered a shutdown at a power-company substation. When the substation couldn't be brought back online, a telephone outage developed, leading to a major tie-up with air traffic controllers. Several hours later, national air gridlock had nearly developed, he said.
The risks of cyber-terrorism are substantial, but growing awareness of the problem could help avert disaster, Henry said.
"The good news is, the government is acting," he said. "We are not helpless. We are in an arms race to lock things down before terrorists take action."
The day before the recent power-grid blackout, the North American Electricity Reliability Council adopted a set of cyber-security standards, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.
"That was a major step forward to help protect the power grid," said Miller, whose firm, based in a Washington, D.C., suburb, promotes the safety of the nation's information-technology sector.
Along with uncovering deep fears about cyberattacks, the Pew poll also found that many Americans would like a more effective warning system in the event of a terrorist attack.
Most Americans now rely on TV and radio for notification of an emergency, the study found.
But as the blackout showed, TV and radio are vulnerable to a loss of power, making alternative warning systems vital, said Kenneth B. Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning.
His Washington-based nonprofit group, founded in the wake of 9-11, is pushing the idea with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security.
"We are trying to create tech standards for a communications backbone and also do an educational program to make people aware of where to go for information," he said.
A key part of a warning system would include personal digital assistants, cell phones and pagers, making use of text messaging to deliver information.
Other elements of a warning system could include phone calls with a reverse 911 system to deliver warnings and even fire sirens and church bells.
"Americans want every channel of communication fired up when there are emergencies," Rainie said.
"They want horns sounding, radios blaring, TV screens alight, pagers buzzing, e-mails sent and Web pages updated on the fly."
The poll also found:
58 percent of women fear a cyberattack.
47 percent of men fear an attack.
34 percent of Americans worry that they or someone in their families might be a victim of a terror attack.
71 percent are at least fairly confident the federal government would provide them with sufficient information in the event of another terrorist attack.
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