Blocking a cyberterror attack

Tuesday, 6 May 2003, 10:24 AM EST

In the abstract, fighting a war is simple. The enemy and the targets are generally identifiable. But in the war against hackers and virus writers, the combatants are harder to know.

The attacker might be a 14-year-old in Canada, or a co-worker in the accounting department. "You'll have every type of person" practicing the dark arts of programming, said Sarah Gordon, a senior research fellow with the security technology developer Symantec.

As industry and government seek to repel the attacks for which the Internet is a launching pad, much of the effort involves understanding those who unleash malicious code and jiggle digital doorknobs. In the world that emerged after the Sept. 11 attacks, after all, understanding an elusive enemy has become a growing part of confronting a threat.

Security experts have warned for several years that cyberterrorism presents a great potential threat to the United States, with its increasing dependence on computer networks for everything from weapons systems to hydroelectric dams, not to mention the underpinnings of commerce. Richard A. Clarke, a former White House adviser on terrorism, warned even before Sept. 11 of a coming "digital Pearl Harbor."

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