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Could US repel a cyberattack?

The nation's defense relies on a small group that operates on a tiny budget and with little clout, experts say.

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Much work remains to be done, says Mr. Dixon, particularly in terms of developing state-level preparedness efforts and in preparing for an incident in which several major networks were attacked simultaneously.

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"I'm not going to paint a total rosy picture," he says. But "I think we're in a pretty good position to deal with the issue."

Some analysts believe the private sector shouldn't be forced to report and otherwise participate in these kinds of DHS initiatives – except for companies that occupy four key sectors: finance, telecommunications, energy, and government services – such as those that provide checks to senior citizens.

And DHS must know which elements of the private sector would be vulnerable during a cyberattack, Mr. Lewis says. "To say we don't know which banks would stay online is unacceptable," he says.

US-CERT itself is funded at around $46 million per year, which pays for exercise programs such as one called "Cyber-storm" held last year, and other software assurance programs. Overall, the national cybersecurity division is funded at $96 million, according to Dixon.

But it's not a question of throwing more money at the problem, says Lewis. The issue is coming up with a coherent national strategy. DHS has improved its approach over time, but it needs to do more – and faster. "It's not a question of budget, it's a question of strategy," he says, adding that the strategy now is "too diffuse."

"Whoever the next administration is will have to take all these strategies and throw them out the window and start over," he says.

The Pentagon – a bureaucratic gorilla with deep pockets – has remained largely on the sidelines of cyberdefense. The military's protection umbrella is limited to its own separate networks. However, that stance may be shifting.

The Air Force is looking to get into cyberdefenses with the creation of a new Cyber-space Command, which would help to defend the military's interests in cyberspace. Although the concept is still being developed, it's likely that the military's role and that of nonmilitary agencies and the private sector would overlap some, officials say.

The range of domestic targets, however, extends far beyond the military's traditional reach.

"Usually when people discuss critical infrastructure they are discussing systems such as electricity, water, etc. In this case [in Estonia], the civilian infrastructure such as banks, ISPs, and the press proved to be far more important," says Gadi Evron, an expert with the security vendor Beyond Security in Israel.

ESTONIA ATTACK IS TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Cyberattacks are commonplace, says Mr. Evron, who used to run security for the Israeli government's Internet operations. "Whenever there was civil or political tension, a [cyber] attack followed here in Israel."

Denial-of-service attacks are observed on virtually a daily basis, says Dmitri Alperovitch, a researcher with Secure Computing Corp., a network security firm based in San Jose, Calif.

Home computers can be quietly infected when users surf onto certain web pages and then come under control of hackers without the knowledge of their owners.?? Mr. Alperovitch says an estimated 50 million machines around the world have been compromised, and shadowy underworld figures rent out control – often just pennies per machine – over these computers for attacks.

Homeland Security conducts some research into new defensive technology, though a department reorganization saw those research dollars cut from $22.7 million to $14.8 million. The House passed a 2008 budget appropriation that would bump up the research to $50 million, and the subcommittee on emerging threats, cybersecurity, and science and technology has been highlighting the issue in recent hearings.

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