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Of CyberTerrorism and Ice Storms
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December 2002 hit many states with a vengeance, unleashing a furious rain of ice in parts of North and South Carolina. While the ice storm was by any standards a disaster, it was the seemingly slow reaction of a particular electric company that led to its being catastrophic. After a miserable nine days spent shivering without power, water or any alternate heat source, the reintroduction of electricity to our community should have been a great relief. And it was, for about 5 minutes. After the initial rush of excitement, the realization that thousands still remained powerless brought sobering reality crashing down. The further irony of finally regaining computer access only to discover an inbox filled with dire predictions of cyberterror hammered home the fact that our vulnerability lies not with crackers, nor even with viruses, but rather with our response to these real or perceived threats. Indeed, crackers can only hack where open doors exist and viruses can only gain a foothold in systems patrolled by inattentive or uneducated users. Better protection and better response exists in cyberspace than in the physical parts of our world. It is up to us to take advantage of it.

In the case of the ice storm, the power company in question chose not to devote resources to the hardest hit area for a full three days. When they moved their repair personnel in, they worked them from dawn to dusk. In this area, at this time of year, that amounts to about a ten-hour workday. In cyberspace, among the hardcore security community, a ten-hour day is average. In crises, those charged with virus eradication and system security have been known to work round the clock, sleeping on makeshift cots in the corner of their office when sleep becomes imperative. Their dedication to the task of securing cyberspace now brings us virus definition files within hours of the release of newly discovered and fast moving threats. In short, while there will always be some victims, the response time is such that within a responsible user community, infection will be rare – or even non-existent – and cleanup is swift and efficient. However, in a user community that is not responsible, infection is almost inevitable and cleanup will almost always be costly and often ineffective. Just as those in the ice storm who had the foresight to build with working fireplaces or had generators fared better than those of us who did not, those who approach computing seriously and not as an online toy will better weather a cyberstorm.

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