Surprising percentage of public fears cyberattacks

About half of Americans fear terrorists will launch cyberattacks on the large networks that operate the banking, electrical transportation and water systems, disrupting everyday life and possibly crippling economic activity, according to a survey conducted by Federal Computer Week and the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Some 49 percent of those surveyed said they were afraid of cyberassaults on key parts of the U.S. economy. A significant gender gap showed up in the data, as women were more likely to express fear. People in the Midwest were the most concerned about cyberterrorism.

According to experts, Americans tend to discount the devastating effects a computer virus or attack can have on the financial, transportation and health industries. But the high percentage of Americans who fear an attack — coupled with the fact the poll was taken before the Blaster worm infected millions of computers worldwide and prior to the electrical blackout in the Northeast and Canada — indicate that the public's awareness of the issue, and their fear, has increased.

Alan Paller, a leading expert on information security and research director for the SANS Institute, a training and education organization, said the high percentage of Americans worried about cyberattacks surprised him, but it indicates that the federal government has done a good job of making people aware of the issue.

"At that high level, it also helps explain why Microsoft [Corp.] is making a huge policy change in how it handles vulnerabilities and that most other vendors will be forced to follow," he wrote in an e-mail to FCW. "Instead of expecting every school child and all users to do their own security maintenance, the vendors are being forced — kicking and screaming — into taking responsibility for fixing, automatically without user knowledge or involvement, every security vulnerability that could be used in attacks on the infrastructure."

Interviewed after the blackout that hit New York and other major urban areas, Donna Day, a resident of Wagner, S.C., said she is still concerned that hackers can break into any computer network. "I'm not as worried about them breaking into banks as much as [I'm worried they may do] something like the blackout," Day, 49, said. "If they could get into a computer and cause something like that, it would shut down a whole city."

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, said he's not surprised by the poll results. "People are very cognizant and concerned about the risks to their information and their finances from cybersecurity threats," he said. "They realize their money can be stolen in ways other than robbing a bank."

Computer security expert Peter Neumann, a scientist with the research firm SRI International, said it's important that the public is becoming aware of how serious the threat can be. "Until now, the standard answer you get is, 'We've never had the Pearl Harbor of cybersecurity, so why worry,' " he said. "We tend not to be on our toes. And we need to be on our toes."

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