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[infowar.de] NYT 17.11.01: To Forestall a 'Digital Pearl Harbor,' U.S. Looks to System Separate From Internet
November 17, 2001
To Forestall a 'Digital Pearl Harbor,' U.S. Looks to System Separate From Internet
By ALISON MITCHELL
WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 ? The Bush administration is considering the creation of a secure new government communications network separate from the Internet that would be less vulnerable to attack and efforts to disrupt critical federal activities.
The idea for such a system, called GovNet, is the brainchild of Richard A. Clarke, a counterterrorism expert whom President Bush recently named his special adviser for cyberspace security.
Mr. Clarke, who has been warning for some time of the possibility of a "digital Pearl Harbor" if the nation does not invest more in cybersecurity, began working on the idea of a government network before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But he says the attacks showed that it is imperative to imagine the ways terrorists could disrupt the nation's information infrastructure and the computer networks that control telecommunications, the electric grid, water supplies and air traffic.
"Prior to 9/11," he said in an interview, "there were a lot of people who thought that the only thing the terrorists could do is what they have already done. Now we know they can do something really catastrophic."
"The worst case here," he said of a cyberspace attack against the government, "is that we might not be able to communicate for essential government services. And it might happen at a time when we're at war. It might happen at a time when we're responding to terrorism."
Mr. Clarke said a critical question for the administration would be how much a government computer network would cost. No one is quite sure of that sum, although he speculated that it could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Assessing the possibility of a separate computer network for the government is just one example of how the administration is looking toward technological advances to bolster homeland security, much as Ronald Reagan and now Mr. Bush turned to the idea of a missile defense system.
After examining devices for sensing radiation and chemical and biological agents, Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, said this week that technology would be "at the heart of strategy" for making the nation more secure. Mr. Ridge is one of two officials to whom Mr. Clarke reports; the other is the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
Prowling his office in the Old Executive Office Building, Mr. Clarke used a multicolored flowchart to describe a government communications system that would have its own routers, keeping it segregated from other computer users.
He envisions a system that would be strictly monitored and constantly scanned for viruses. "You would find abuse of the system early, you would limit it, you would stop it," he said.
Some in the technology industry fear what they see as the implications for the Internet: a separate cyberspace system for the government, they say, might create a trend in which other institutions as well would begin building their own networks separate from the Net. Civil libertarians, meanwhile, ask whether the idea would make the government less accessible to the people.
But Mr. Clarke said he did not see the system as a substitute for the Internet. Government agencies would simply be able to use two separate systems for varying functions, with the non-Internet system employed by federal agencies for the most essential needs requiring the greatest security. Some agencies, like the Energy Department, already have their own internal computer networks, on a smaller scale.
The administration has asked the industry to submit information by next week about how such a system might work and what it would cost. Industry officials say the request has sparked debate over everything from cost to technical feasibility to the implications for the Net.
"A lot of companies are putting various proposals together," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "I think you're going to see hundreds of companies submit comments."
As for cost, "some critics have said that this will be vastly expensive and is therefore folly," Mr. Clarke said at a recent conference sponsored by Microsoft. "If it turns out it will be vastly expensive, I suspect we won't do it, but we'll never know unless we ask."
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat interested in technology issues, said Congress too would want to weigh whether the benefit was worth the cost. "The question," Mr. Wyden said, "is whether for the same amount of money is it going to be possible to get these key agencies access to the Internet we already have in a secure way?"
Once the first information comes in next week, the ideas will be studied by a team of government experts as well as outside academics.
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