General John Gordon, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and the head of the Homeland Security Council at the White House, told attendees at the RSA Conference here that striking at the heart of the Al Qaeda terrorist network may fragment it into smaller groups that may be more difficult to find. To date, these groups have not launched a terrorist attack through cyberspace, but the potential is there, he said.
Gordon stopped just short of labeling hackers and other writers of malicious code as terrorists. Instead, he said he does not use the term "cyberterrorism", as too many persons confuse the term with Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
"There are a range of actors, but only some of them may be traditional terrorists," he said. But whether or not a power grid is turned off by a bomb or some form of malicious code, the end result is the same, he added.
However, the financial cost from worms and other incidents of cybercrime reached a record high last year. Laws such as the USA Patriot Act and the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime—which will allow a governments agencies to cooperate with their counterparts in other countries—will provide additional legal tools to fight cybercrime, Gordon said. The U.S. has yet to ratify the European treaty, sent to the Senate for approval in November.
A year ago, President Bush created a federal mandate to secure cyberspace, which called for a partnership between public agencies and private firms. Gordon said Wednesday that the strategy is working.
"My message today on the behalf of the Bush Administration is that we get it," he said.
As the government works to weed out terror cells around the world, the importance of the role of private enterprise will become greater as those cells become smaller and smaller, Gordon said.
"With some trepidation I would predict that the face of terrorism will change once the central point of Al Qaeda is destroyed," he said. Unfortunately, were seeing the beginning part of that happening now."
As the war on terror progresses, the Department of Homeland Security will focus on several areas. One key area will be agent-based tools to mine data and assess the volumes of information the agents will collect—"a major IT challenge and a potential market," he said.
A more-controversial topic will be the monitoring and analyzing of transactions made over the Internet. Gordon acknowledged that watching who buys what will be a "hugely controversial topic" but that "terrorists will be making transactions in this country and we need to understand that."
Although the tone of his speech was serious, Gordon ended on a lighter note, complaining that after a full day of trying to set up a secure wireless network in his home, he gave up in defeat.