October 22, 1997 in Nation/World

Report Says U.S. Open To Computer Threats Dependence On Computers For Security, Economy And Way Of Life Makes Country Increasingly Vulnerable

Rory J. O'Connor Knight-Ridder
 

The United States’ dependence on computers for its security, economy and way of life makes the country increasingly vulnerable to attacks on computers that easily could wipe out communications and power grids, a presidential commission warns in a new study.

The study, scheduled for release today, recommends gradually increasing the $250 million the federal government spends on computer-security research to $1 billion.

The money would be spent to develop high-tech measures to detect and repulse potential attacks and to develop a joint government-industry agency to exchange information between corporate users and government intelligence agencies.

The White House will develop detailed strategies to strengthen the nation’s computer defenses over the next two months, senior White House officials said Tuesday.

Large portions of the 75-page report outlining computer threats will not be made public because of contents that are classified.

The study, prepared over the last 15 months by the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, concludes that government and private industry must increase dramatically their awareness of “cyber” threats.

Estimates of the degree to which national systems are threatened by computer attack are imprecise, said Thomas Marsh, chairman of the commission. Some of the evidence gathered for the report is anecdotal, and previous attacks have been isolated incidents, he said.

Nonetheless, the report concludes that computer attacks on crucial systems - and, more specifically, on points where different infrastructures connect - endanger national security, economic security and networks “that underpin our way of life,” Marsh said.

“We have created tremendous interdependencies within our infrastructures,” Marsh said. “These interdependencies create important nodes, and if you really wanted to do this nation harm, you could (attack them) and cause cascading failures.”

The commission played out a number of such scenarios to assess the potential cost.

One scenario looked at a massive power outage in the western United States, similar to ones that occurred last summer because of natural disasters. The conclusion: An 18-hour power outage could cause damages of between $1 billion and $4 billion. Marsh called even that “a very conservative estimate.”

Thus, waiting too long to protect those systems from intrusions would be a disaster, he said.

After several delays and alterations, the classified report and its 200-page appendices were handed Monday to a five-person steering committee headed by Attorney General Janet Reno. Next, the report will be sent to members of the Cabinet for comments; then the package will be forwarded to President Clinton.

The White House will use the report to help “development of our own recommendations” on fighting the problem, but the work won’t be done “much before the end of the year,” said Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry. He declined elaboration on the report pending a formal White House statement today.


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