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Survey Predicts Attacks on the Network Infrastructure Within 10 Years

Pew Internet Project has released a report called “The Future of the Internet” based on a recently conducted survey where 1,286 internet experts are said to have looked at the future impact of the internet and assessed predictions about how technology and society will unfold. The following is and excerpt from the report predicting at least one devastating attack will occur in the next 10 years on the networked information infrastructure or the United States power grid.

As Americans have become more dependent on the internet, there has been a growing chorus of concerns about the vulnerability of the network to physical and internal attack. Denial of service attacks have plagued some Web sites. A growing number of computer viruses have spread around the network. A central part of the internet in Manhattan was near the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center. And Robert Gates, the director of the CIA in the 1990s, recently said that the internet is a prime target because terrorists may perceive it as a threat to their way of life.

“A simple scan of the growing number and growing sophistication of the viral critters already populating our networks is ample evidence of the capacity and motivation to disrupt.”—Anonymous respondent

There was strong agreement among experts from every group in our survey that an infrastructure attack was increasingly likely. If there was anything resembling a consensus agreement in our survey this concern about threats to the internet was it.

Respondents who agreed with this prediction had several kinds of threats in mind. Some are worried about physical attacks on central parts of the internet infrastructure or cyber-terrorist exploitation of vulnerabilities in the systems of key utilities or key industries, such as banking. Others expressed concerns that the network of networks would remain vulnerable to ever-more-clever viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other packet-born techno-troubles.

At the same time, a number of experts questioned the word “devastating,” arguing, for example, that a network attack is not likely to be comparable to a disaster like a hurricane. Fred Hapgood, a professional science and technology writer, responded, “Not if ‘devastating’ means something like ‘no internet for 24 hours’. It’s way too decentralized for that.” Simson Garfinkel, an authority on computer security and columnist for Technology Review, wrote, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘devastating.’ We see roughly one devastating attack every 6-12 months. Do you mean an attack with loss of life?” Another wrote, “If you mean very costly, yes. If you mean a failure that cascades to other segments of society, with widespread suffering or loss of life, then no.”

One self-declared optimist disagreed with the prediction and wrote, “Technology is not sitting still, and our defenses are continuously improving.” Another wrote, “Predictions like this reflect a willingness to accept a conspiracy theory of the world. I am too optimistic to agree.”

A few experts challenged the prediction. One wrote, “I believe it implies a static infrastructure that isn’t constantly being enhanced and expanded.” Another wrote bluntly, “Dumb prediction. There is likely to be a devastating attack on anything big.”

At least one expert saw a silver lining in the event of an attack, writing, “The question, though, is how we’ll weather it. Maybe it will just cause a holiday where we come, blinking, out into the sunlight for an afternoon.”

By Lee Rainie, Director

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