A defense for the Internet

Threat to nation: White House acts on cyber security to lessen U.S. vulnerability to terrorism.

October 10, 2001

SINCE 1988, when a software worm effectively shut down the fledgling Internet, we have known cyber-terrorism is possible.

Indeed, over the past two decades, hackers and pranksters have momentarily crippled innumerable computers with viruses.

The appointment of veteran diplomat Richard A. Clarke to direct the nation's cyber security acknowledges the obvious: Computer terrorism is a realistic threat. A well-planned computer assault can paralyze life in the United States more quickly than anything short of a nuclear attack.

If computers go haywire, airlines and trains could stop, electricity and broadcast networks could go dark. ATM machines could crash, 911 emergency phone systems could collapse.

Such sabotage might not bring the United States to its knees, but it certainly would cause chaos and confusion.

The Muslim Hackers' Club is an illustration of the devious expertise available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The London-based 3-year-old site is a veritable do-it-yourself warehouse for anyone wanting to wreak havoc.

It gives tips -- from public American Web sites -- on hacking into the Pentagon's computers, offers free software that enables unbreakable encryption as well as anonymous e-mailing and teaches how to use viruses.

Since Sept. 11, the Muslim Hackers' Club has piqued authorities' interest because of its contents. But several other sites on the Internet offer comparable basic tools for hacking and virus making without any professed religious or political agenda.

The National Security Agency and other U.S. government affiliates have for years quietly worked on strategies to combat computer attacks.

But the absence of any perceptible crisis lessened the urgency of such countermeasures.

The government has been trying to make up for lost time since Sept. 11. The appointment of Mr. Clarke is part of that catch-up effort.

So is the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which would enable easier prosecution and sentencing of computer hackers and Web site vandals and "crackers."

Civil liberties groups are worried about attempts to lump small-time hackers together with murderous terrorists. That's a reasonable concern.

Ensuring precise definitions and language for legislation are technical problems, though. They should not be diverting attention from the main issue: Having never had to fear audacious, large-scale terrorism, this nation has been far too lackadaisical about its security.

The past four weeks have taught every American that we live in a world full of dangers.

Coordinated national defense against cyber-terrorism is not only justified but prudent.

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