Terrorists on the Net? Who Cares?

Friday, 20 December 2002, 1:00 PM EST

To all those Chicken Littles clucking frantically about the imminent threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. computer networks, a new report says: Knock it off.

Online attacks are merely "weapons of mass annoyance," no more harmful than the routine power failures, airplane delays and dropped phone calls that take place every day.

"The idea that hackers are going to bring the nation to its knees is too far-fetched a scenario to be taken seriously," said Jim Lewis, a 16-year veteran of the State and Commerce Departments. He compiled the analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Nations are more robust than the early analysts of cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare give them credit for," Lewis wrote in the report. "Infrastructure systems (are) more flexible and responsive in restoring service than the early analysts realized, in part because they have to deal with failure on a routine basis."

Take the electrical grid, often cited as a bright red bull's-eye in terrorists' sights. The panoply of public and private power providers -- more than 3,000 in all -- has been nearly impossible to take down by electronic attack, Lewis wrote. The network is just too far-flung.

"A hacker or even a large group of hackers would need to find vulnerabilities in multiple systems to significantly disrupt the power supply and even then, an attack might only disrupt service for a few hours," Lewis noted. "Falling trees have caused many electric system disruptions while cyber attacks have caused none."

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