The head of the government agency charged with defending computer networks against unauthorized access said that hackers who deface government Web sites have committed a serious crime, not a harmless prank.
"We don't say that attacks on Web sites are a form of cyberterrorism," said Michael Vatis, chief of the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI. "They are illegal just like spray painting on the White House walls are illegal."
Vatis spoke at a Wednesday afternoon panel discussion on critical infrastructure protection at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His remarks come during a week when an array of government Web sites, including sites operating by the FBI and the White House, have been broken into and altered by malicious computer users.
"Messages that say, 'If you continue to enforce the laws by conducting investigations against hackers, we are going to come after you,' are an effort to intimidate government officials from enforcing the law," he said.
At the same time, Vatis defended the theoretical use of "infrastructure warfare" measures to counter conventional, or "kinetic," methods of warfare. These could even include U.S.-sponsored attempts to deter an enemy such as Yugoslavia with computer-employed attacks on electric power and financial systems.
The government at the beginning of the decade began serious investigations on how to construct and use computer viruses against enemy computer systems in wartime.
It has long been considered proper "to attack civilian services as an element of warfare under certain conditions," said Vatis. "Why is it unethical to do it under other means?"
But Daniel Kuehl, professor of military strategy at the National Defense University, said that it was not clear whether a computer network attack met internationally recognized norms of force recognized as warfare.
"If states are able to destroy one other without blowing each other up, is that force?" Kuehl questioned. "We don't know that. The technology is way ahead of the law and far ahead of ethics."