Rep. Smith sounds cyberalarm

There is a 50 percent chance that the next time al Qaeda terrorists strike the United States, it will include a cyberattack, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) warned last week.

In closed-door briefings for Congress members, Smith said officials from federal law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies disclosed that al Qaeda operatives have been exploring U.S. Web sites and probing the electronic infrastructure of American companies in search of ways to disable power and water supplies, disrupt phone service and damage other parts of the infrastructure.

A successful cyberattack could cause billions of dollars in damage and lead to thousands of deaths, Smith told a gathering of congressional staffers and technology industry representatives July 23.

Al Qaeda members seem especially interested in how they might disable the systems that provide electricity to California, said Smith, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee.

If such an attack were to succeed, hospitals could be left powerless, causing patients to die, and commerce would come to a halt, causing billions of dollars in economic damage, he said.

About 90 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure is privately owned, and much of it remains vulnerable to cyberattacks, according to the Business Software Alliance, a technology industry association.

A June survey by the Business Software Alliance showed that 74 percent of surveyed technology professionals thought it was "nearly certain" that there will be a cyberattack against American financial institutions in the next 12 months.

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