As telephone circuits overloaded in the aftermath of last weeks terrorist attacks, David Farber - former chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission - kept in close contact with his son in New York through instant messages. The Net, he said, "worked beautifully, just the way it was supposed to work."
But the computer technology expert, now at the University of Pennsylvania, said he also knew that if terrorists had decided to launch simultaneous attacks on the Internet, they could have created national "chaos" in addition to the tragic and massive loss of life.
"There have always been certain [security] problems with the Net as it is," Farber said. "We know that it is somewhat vulnerable to attack. There are experts around the world who could cause a lot of problems."
Denial-of-service attacks are a widely understood problem that can affect particular business or government Web sites. But, Farber said, "jamming" of the Internet itself - or attacks from another country to disrupt services infrastructures such as communications or power - could have serious consequences as well.
Part of the problem is that the Internet was basically built by people who liked each other, he said. "Now there are people out there who are adverse to us, who dont like us. And they have access to the Internets technology, too. So there is a vulnerability, and it is not trivial."
The Internet held up well during last weeks disastrous terrorist attacks, Farber said. "It took tremendous loads and kept running. But it is easy to visualize cases where you have attacks like you had . . . and attacks on the Internet at the same time, to disrupt peoples ability to communicate, to cause more chaos."
An Internet attack can have far-reaching impacts on peoples lives for economic reasons.
Farber said he believes that as new generations of the Net are constructed, they need to be able to resist a sophisticated attack. "People are already chipping away at that, but the folks working on this have limited resources. That means it is going to be a long and difficult job.
"You have to have motivation to do this, and so far the motivations have been relatively slack," he said. "Maybe that will change now. A lot of government Web sites in particular are easy to penetrate. And if you penetrate a government Web site at the wrong time, the amount of chaos you could create is incredible."