Experts believe the fallout from September 11 could continue through computer infiltration. In the Internet Age, when communications speed across national boundaries, terrorist groups are winning the cyberspace battle. Leading security experts to predict that it is only several years before a terrorist or rogue nation is capable of an online hacker-style attack against the United States, causing massive failure of such crucial elements as banking for the financial markets, transportation systems, the power grid, or telecommunications. A cyber-terrorist can range from anti-American masterminds to co-workers. Fifteen-year-olds are breaking into systems, but many are worried about the forty-five-year-old who’s mad at the world and takes a company’s intellectual property. The Defense Department acknowledges hundreds of successful cyber attacks on its networks in recent years, some of which trace back to the Persian Gulf area.
It is feared that cyber terrorists will turn our systems against us. For instance, if terrorists wanted to attack a coal-fired power plant, they might hack their way into a seemingly unrelated railroad computer system to shut down real traffic. That would prevent coal from reaching the plant. Some areas that are in danger of infiltration are banking and financial services, telecommunications, electric power, oil and gas delivery, transportation, water, emergency services, and government services. These are the essential, interdependent services upon which society relies, the kind of services upon which society relies, the kind of services that if disrupted, would create a series of cascading problems that would ripple across the nation. Cyber terrorism is not just a future problem, but a current threat to national security. In 1998, hackers tapped into NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory computer in Pasadena and accessed data about the commercial air traffic system. This intelligence could have told hackers the configuration of GPS navigation satellites and allowed them to jam the system during the war. The hackers were also looking for information on stealth aircraft.
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The United States is left vulnerable to cyber terrorism for many reasons. The United States has a woefully inadequate investment in computer security. Few top researchers have been drawn to the field of computer security, which has remained essentially unchanged in its failed approaches since its inception. The federal government has no agency that is focused on, and responsible for ensuring that the necessary research and implementation are undertaken to improve computer security. Market forces have given private industry little incentive to invest in computer security even as their reliance on the internet grows. The nation also is vulnerable to cyber-attacks because there is no national clearinghouse to analyze vital information gathered by countless government agencies that don’t always speak to each other and by private industry that often is disinclined to pass along proprietary information.
In addition, terrorists can hide their communications with encryption software. They can also set up websites to help raise money for their operations. Terrorists are given access to data by operating on the inside. A recent Department of Treasury report noted that sixty percent of all computer security breaches are internal. Employees have clearance and they take information and misuse it. America’s intelligence agencies are frozen in time. The problem is demonstrated by our National Security Agency. The NSA operates spy satellites and gathers information from radio, microwave, television, telephone, and internet signals outside the United States. For three days last year, the NSA’s entire computer system went down because of antiquated overloaded software linking devices and satellites. Fortunately for national security, the NSA kept the shutdown secret until the networks were up and running again. The Agency says it’s spending billions of dollars to update aging computer and cryptographic tools, but experts fear updates will not keep up with changing technology.
Lifetime employment at the agency and relatively low pay discourage technologically savvy workers from joining. Vulnerability is due to a lack of action. America has adjusted too slowly to the threats the internet brings. “The public really has not focused on the fragility and vulnerability of the infrastructure, and there will not be much action until something major happens,” said Bill Nunn, who serves as co-chairman of the commission’s civilian oversight panel. There are steps being made to protect America’s security. Politicians have questioned whether laws designed to protect civil liberties–which also inhibit investigators from aggressively pursuing suspects online should be changed, and the Bush administration is asking for expanded powers and is adding funds to track down terrorists. The Bush administration has put together the Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection.
It will create partnerships between government and industry to jointly solve the cyberspace security problems. Under such a partnership, the industry would be able to anonymously disclose where it suffered security breaches and, with the government’s support and research, identify ways to plug holes. Congress is holding hearings on cybersecurity. They are developing commissions to research, examine and propose legislation to address security shortcomings. The Information Security Act is presently being voted upon. The act would encourage private industry to pass along information to the federal government. The government in turn would analyze the data to determine any potential threat and send out alerts.
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