Comment Leader, © Silicon.com 1998, 1999

Why governments should fight back in the cyberwars

April 12 1999, 0:01am - Two weeks ago, Melissa was just another topless dancer living in Florida. Little did she know then that she was about to give her name to a virus that would strike down corporate networks all over the world. But now her 15 minutes of fame have come and gone, what is there to be learnt? Many self-appointed 'industry experts' have dismissed Melissa as 'pure hype'. They say only a small percentage of businesses were affected. They also say it was just another bandwagon for the anti-virus software manufacturers to jump on, to sell more upgrades.

Being cynical is great, isn't it; after all, it saves you having to think. It also means you don't actually have to take any action either. Well, let this week's news of a Serbian threat serve as their wake-up call.

According to consultancy, mi2g, Slobodan Milosevic's government is paying hackers to send malicious viruses to the West. It's obvious, really - Nato is currently blowing up the Serbian military's fuel, water, power and communications lines. Clearly, you'd expect Serbia to retaliate in kind, but since sending planes to Berlin, London or Paris is impractical, the obvious move is to turn hackers into front-line troops instead.

So if you're responsible for IT at a utility company, stop worrying about the 17 year old geek challenging authority from his mom's basement in Seattle. Worry about cybermercenaries. Finance firms need to be on the alert too - if you were a paid hacker working in the former Eastern Bloc, you'd find the seat of the capitalist West pretty irresistible too, wouldn't you?

But what does this mean in the long term? At present, we can make sure our firewalls and anti-virus software are up to date and reliable. We can also share information on detection and fixes with our customers, suppliers and competitors. However, these are only stop-gap solutions. Even if mi2g's imminent cyberwar proves a false alarm, there will always be another 'enemy of the West' just around the corner, ready to make it happen for real. In which case, we'll need some serious protection.

The IT industry has long been left to police itself, but now it's time for the member states of the United Nations to take responsibility. They should be employing the very best ex-hackers and security experts in the world to help provide a shield against such attacks. They need to work out how to provide technical protection, advice and active support for all vulnerable organisations.

It's time governments stopped leaving us to fend for ourselves - if a political decision is taken to bomb another nation, it should be soldiers, not IT directors, doing the fighting.

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