'Cyber 9/11' may be on horizon, Homeland Security chief warns

With the possibility of a massive cyberattack hitting the U.S. in the near future, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urges the government to pass cybersecurity legislation.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warns that a massive cyberattack on the nation's infrastructure could happen "imminently."

The head of Homeland Security announced today that she believes a "cyber 9/11" could happen "imminently," according to Reuters. If such an event were to occur it could cripple the country -- taking down the power grid, water infrastructure, transportation networks, and financial networks.

"We shouldn't wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a talk at the Wilson Center think tank today, according to Reuters. "There are things we can and should be doing right now that, if not prevent, would mitigate the extent of damage."

Napolitano was referring to the possibility of Congress passing cybersecurity legislation. Several elected officials have been working to get a cybersecurity law passed for years, but have repeatedly run into road blocks.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman spent years fighting unsuccessfully for a so-called Internet kill switch that would grant the president vast power over private networks during a "national cyberemergency." Currently, he is working to get Senate to pass a more modest version of his proposal . By the same token, President Obama also signed an executive order last July that could give the government control over the Internet in an emergency.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also strongly advocated for increased governmental cybersecurity . During his first major policy speech on cybersecurity last October, he echoed previous statements that the United States is facing the possibility of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" perpetrated by foreign hackers.

"A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11," he said during a speech. "Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation."

According to Reuters, Napolitano said today that a massive cyber attack could cause the same amount of damage as last year's Superstorm Sandy, which downed electricity and information networks throughout the Northeastern U.S.

"The clarion call is here and we need to be dealing with this very urgently," Napolitano said. "Attacks are coming all the time. They are coming from different sources, they take different forms. But they are increasing in seriousness and sophistication."

About the author

Dara Kerr is a staff writer for CNET focused on the sharing economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado where she developed an affinity for collecting fool's gold and spirit animals.

 

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