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Fact or Fantasy?

Sound farfetched?

Look at recent articles from the Washington Post, USA Today, and ABC News—and think again.

And think about this.

CBS News reported that a computer taken from an al Qaeda office contained models of a dam, made with structural architecture and engineering software that enabled the planners to simulate its catastrophic failure. In addition, as first reported in the Washington Post and confirmed by ABC News, U.S. investigators have discovered there have been numerous anonymous probes over the Internet for information regarding the nation's emergency phone system, water-distribution networks, and power grid—all critical parts of the U.S. infrastructure. And more disturbingly, officials also confirmed to ABC News that some of these "probes" were focused on "digital switches"—devices designed to allow authorized personnel to monitor and control various aspects of a complex network of machines.

The threat here is that many control systems are now based on the same UNIX software and communication protocols used by computers that are widely connected to the Internet. And while most control systems aren't connected directly to the Internet or accessible through a simple web page, they are connected to other computer systems that typically are available online.

And government is not taking all of this lightly. Federal, state, and local government officials are partnering with representatives from the private sector and the utilities community in a cyberterrorism exercise called Operation Dark Screen that's designed to identify the links between them in defending—and responding to—a cyberattack.

Finally, according to a survey conducted for the Business Software Alliance (BSA), nearly half of information technology (IT) professionals think the United States will fall victim to a major cyberattack in the next 12 months. And according to a report from Computer Economics, although 48.4% of information technology (IT) professionals believe that a "large-scale" cyberattack will be launched on their country by a military operative in less than two years, and 69.6% think terrorists will launch such an attack, 80.1% think that their country is not prepared.

To quote Simon Perry, vice president of security for Computer Associates, "It was unthinkable almost a year ago in the general public mind that a common airplane would be used in attacks against buildings. It's the same here. Information technology will be used to attack the physical world."

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