Speaking at the InfowarCon conference to a crowd of uniformed military personal, corporate IT managers, computer security consultants and at least one screenwriter, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., of the House Armed Services Committee placed "cyberterrorism" at the top of his list of modern threats to the American way of life.
"In my opinion, neither missile proliferation nor weapons of mass destruction are as serious as the threat you are here to discuss," Weldon said.
Weldon warned that civilian infrastructure, including air traffic control systems, communications networks and computer controlled subways could all be vulnerable from cyberspace.
"If I want to wreak havoc on a society that, in some cases, has become complacent, I am going to attack your quality of life," Weldon said.
By way of example, Weldon said he was privy to a computer intrusion three years ago at a New York hospital, in which the perpetrator "was able to change all the patients' blood types." When asked by ZDNN whether the intruder had been apprehended and prosecuted, Weldon said he wasn't certain. He declined to identify the hospital.
Key to war fighting
"It's clear that information superiority is the key to 21st Century war fighting," said Major General John Campbell, who heads the Defense Department's Joint Task Force on Computer Network Defense (JTF).
The JTF was launched last year after a series of attacks by a group of three teen-age hackers on Defense Department Internet systems alarmed Pentagon officials who feared they may be facing a genuine cyberwar as they prepared for operations in Iraq. The intrusions, Campbell said, underscored the need for a central computer security authority within the DOD.
"Somebody has to be in charge," said Campbell.
Campbell said that although the Pentagon's classified network is isolated, its unclassified network, NIPRNET, is connected to the Internet through official and unofficial gateways, and is increasingly relied upon in military operations.
"We've had 400 percent growth in traffic since 1996," said Campbell. "NIPRNET has become the network of choice for war fighters."
The JTF maintains a 24-hour operations center intended to serve as an early warning system for attacks on Pentagon systems. But it's rogue nations, not teen-age hackers, that the center is watching for.
"If they're defacing a Web page, there's not much of an effect on our ability to support troops," said Campbell. "Of course, we take the most serious view until we can prove it's a hacker" -- a process that generally involves asking the FBI to track and arrest the culprit.
Electronic Pearl Harbor?
Not everyone is convinced that America is facing an electronic Pearl Harbor, though.
"There's very little evidence that information warfare poses any direct threat, as do, for example, bombs and guns and tanks," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"Proposals to combat it invariably lead to greater authority and funding for military agencies and a reduction of freedom and privacy for individuals."
Rotenberg said computer security problems should be addressed, "but it shouldn't be done in such a way as to expand military authority or to reduce the openness of research."