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Facing a very real threat

America is vulnerable, the foundations of our society exposed to the ill will of others, chaos lurking just around the corner. There are people who would like to destroy us and they have frightening potential to do so.

We are not referring to the bugbears created and promoted by the “news” entertainers on television and radio, nor to ill-defined threats to our society from our own political parties and elected officials, or the “big government” hyped at rallies and in letters to the editor.

Are we referring to terrorists? Yes. But not those commonly associated with threats to our nation —combatants with AK-47s, bombers who attempt to seed mayhem here and abroad. Not the terrorists who would unleash biological or nuclear weapons on the U.S. and its allies. Granted, these characters are of great concern, but there are others whose targets are very different, of whom we should be increasingly wary. They could deal us a harsh, if not fatal blow.

Cyber terrorists.

Think about the role of information technology in everyday life in America, its role in your personal life. How many aspects of your existence involve computers?

How many of the basic elements in American society depend on linked information technology? Financial systems, at all levels, rely on it. Governmental systems, at all levels, rely on it. Most of the basic services we take for granted are controlled by computer networks — water and wastewater systems, energy creation and delivery systems, law enforcement, all manner of emergency response and health care.

Our food supply is managed with computer networks, from field to consumer. Production and delivery of products relies on networks.

Think about national defense and the role of computers. About the importance of computer systems to education and research.

Any question about the role of computers in our banking and investment businesses?

Do you use a credit card? Do you bank or pay bills online? Do you know of a gas station, grocery store, retail outlet or bank without computerized registers and records?

Think, further, of the manner in which computers and systems have been joined via the Internet, providing a web of access from one machine or system to another.

Very smart people work all the time to create security measures that will prevent unwanted invasions of machines and systems by hackers. But, very smart hackers spend every bit as much time devising ways to elude security. They work from sites across the globe to perpetrate credit card fraud, to steal information, cause disruptions, and worse. Many governments — our own and those of our allies and adversaries — sponsor programs designed to infiltrate critical systems in other countries. Some reports indicate hundreds of thousands of attempts are made each day to breach the security of key agencies.

An article in the June issue of The Atlantic by Mark Bowdon reveals the sophistication of hackers. It deals with a horrifying computer “worm,” probably created in eastern Europe, that has infected between 6.5 and 12 million computers, creating a “botnet” (robot network) with machines checking in with the unknown creators on a regular basis, awaiting an order to act. Security has not been able to deal with the worm and its transmutations, and it is anyone’s guess what will happen with it. Or with what, undoubtedly, will come next.

Computer nerds, wherever they may be, are a formidable bunch. And, used by aggressive governments or terrorists, they and their creations are the greatest danger we face.

In the upcoming mid-term federal elections, perhaps less attention should be paid to the glitzy, often shallow issues created for cynical political purposes, and more to what candidates have to say about a threat that is far too real and all too dangerous.

Karl Isberg