Virtually Helpless

The threat of cyberwar looms large. Our best homeland defense may be surprisingly small

Still, plenty of others have the resources to pull it off. Intelligence agencies have identified 20 countries and two dozen terror rings that are developing cyberwar technology. Among them, the U.S. ranks first in terms of money being invested. The list of other players includes both friends and enemies: China, Russia, France, Germany, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, Britain, France, and North Korea. Groups known to employ cyberweapons range from Hamas in the Middle East to Chiapas rebels in Mexico to the Falun Gong in China. There are also well-financed private cyberarmies mustering in Pakistan, India, and Germany.

In this form of warfare, both the generals and the soldiers are marked by extreme youth. The jargon reflects this. In addition to being called script kiddies, frontline attackers are known as "ankle biters" and "packet monkeys."

Some computer experts denigrate these more minor players. "They don't have to be very intelligent," says John Hale, a computer science professor who works with the Cyber Corps program at the University of Tulsa. "These hackers use scripts other people write."

illustration: McKibillo

The hacker community has other weaknesses. Its members are often their own worst enemy. "Hackers can expose and break into things, but they aren't necessarily good at making something work," says McIlroy, of Internal Network Services. "A person committing the crime of breaking in isn't always expert in defending. Besides, the question isn't how to defend a system, but how to make it unbreakable."

Though that question may have no answer, the strongest hope lies with pulling in all available minds. Cyberwar is not a game for the shortsighted. Some argue the long-term fallout from a potent assault would be even more devastating than the virtual battle itself. John Adams, a well-known defense expert and former Washington correspondent for the London Sunday Times, recently wrote that cyberwar technology "is capable of deciding the outcome of geopolitical crises without the firing of a single weapon."

And just as the effects of an atom bomb linger for generations, so a cyberwar could unleash a host of viruses, worms, and Trojan horses that defy the best defense efforts long after the fighting has ended. Already, there are some 30,000 hacker-oriented sites on the Internet, bringing the tools needed to wage cyberwar within the reach of even the technologically challenged. The array of weapons is vast and growing. According to ICSA Labs, more than 50,000 computer viruses have been created, and up to 400 are active at any one time, with over 10 new ones released every day.

In the end, the Department of Homeland Security may fail in its mission because it is reactive rather than proactive, seeking to influence events from on high rather than from the ground level, where effective control can determine the outcome of cyber-conflict. Left unprepared, New York—and the country—could find itself the victim not simply of a cyberattack, but of an utter failure of governing elites to see the writing on the wall.

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