Cyber cops


WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton flew to Birmingham, England, to meet with world leaders, an FBI official named Michael Vatis went with him. Mr. Vatis' daunting job is to help protect the nation's technological and financial lifeblood.

"You've never heard of us because we're only a month old," said Michael Woods, an FBI man with degrees from Oxford and Harvard Law School who is Mr. Vatis' counsel. "Our task," Mr. Woods added, "is to detect and deter attacks on our critical infrastructures."

Here are the Big Seven on the FBI's hit list: electrical energy, gas and oil depots, water supply systems, banking and finance, government operations, telecommunications and transportation.

Global effort

The new $30 million National Infrastructure Protection Center is a key element in the mounting battle against cyber crime. Such tasks require nations to work together, which is why Mr. Vatis went to Birmingham.

Is Mr. Clinton simply on a media tear in calling attention to distant and murky threats?

"Every day, U.S. cities and communities are impacted by international crime, whether in the form of drug-related violence, terrorist attacks or financial scams that target our elderly citizens," responds Eric Holder, the No. 2 official in the Justice Department.

Cyber cops aren't above pulling off scams of their own to catch crooks, of course. They've been known, for example, to pass out free phone cards in crime-ridden areas. But these cards, unlike normal ones, trigger taps and bring down drug deals.

Threats in cyberspace range from what the FBI calls "recreational hackers" to foreign spy outfits that employ "information warriors."

"At least half the incidents involve insiders motivated by such things as greed or revenge," said Mr. Woods. While the Big Seven haven't been preyed upon by, say, Iraqi agents, cyber cops think that's where the real threat resides.

Before going to England for the summit, Mr. Vatis said: "We have not really seen [computers attacked] by terrorist groups or hostile nation states, at least that we know about, where they've gotten into a system and sought to destroy it. But the potential is clearly there, because once you're inside a system, and you acquire root access, you can do anything you want."

The presidential commission that spawned Mr. Vatis' shop also urged Mr. Clinton to set up a White House office to work with key industries in shielding computers from outsiders.

Strengths vs. weaknesses

The true value of networks -- including the some 40,000 networks that serve the Defense Department -- is their ability to work together. But their very strength exposes their underlying weakness.

As Robert Marsh, the retired general who headed Mr. Clinton's commission on infrastructures, explained: "We weren't attuned to the growing interdependencies of the infrastructures. The information technology networks have been linked together in such a fashion that you can contemplate cascading failures from one system into another. And a well-engineered effort to do serious harm would, in fact, try to exploit those interdependencies."

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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