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Homeland chief urges firms to bolster cybersecurity

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge underscored to technology leaders Tuesday evening that the private sector should be worried about computer attacks and must do more to secure their networks.

At a speech before the Northern Virginia Technology Council, Ridge cited a poll showing that 90 percent of CEOs do not think their companies are a target for terrorist attacks, and he expressed concern that companies may not be vigilant enough in trying to prevent hackings or other types of cyber attacks.

"If you don't think you're a target, it's very unlikely you're going to do anything about it," Ridge said. "That's very disquieting. It's not just the physical destruction of your capacity ... that you need to be worried about. Given the interdependency of the cyber and physical capacity that you have, you need to be just as worried, or maybe even more worried, about somebody hacking into your system."

Ridge's emphasis on cybersecurity came as some people in the high-tech industry have expressed concern about the Bush administration's attention to the issue. With the creation of the Homeland Security Department on March 1, the White House dissolved its critical infrastructure protection office and has yet to name an individual to oversee cyber security.

Robert Liscouski has been nominated as Homeland Security assistant secretary of infrastructure protection and will have jurisdiction over cyber security, but industry officials have pushed for a single, high-level person to focus on the issue.

"We appreciate the outstanding individuals that President Bush has designated to oversee infrastructure protection," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "We are concerned, however, that the cybersecurity issue is losing visibility inside the White House."

A source close to the White House said an individual would be dedicated to cybersecurity when the White House Homeland Security Council is announced.

On Tuesday, Ridge asked businesses to examine their vulnerabilities and to develop plans for addressing them, as outlined in the cyber-security strategy released in February.

"This will not be a cost-free arrangement," Ridge said. "But the cost of doing little or nothing ... will be much higher."

Ridge also said technology is key to homeland security and encouraged businesses to share their products and services through the department's vendor information site. He also urged companies with prototype ideas to click on the "Working with DHS" on the agency's Web site, as his staff is looking for such projects.

"We are planning frequent, broad area announcements of our technology needs to give companies like yours an opportunity to meet them," he said.

Ridge also outlined how technology is already being used at the borders, through the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), where a machine with gamma rays is used to scan rail or truck containers for illegal weapons or materials. In addition, the department is providing every primary border inspector with personal radiation detectors.

"Technology puts the smart in smart borders," he said.