The internet used to be popularly considered a casual place to write e-mail to friends. Now, it runs complex systems like the nation's power grid, international banking, trains and hydroelectric dams.
But the same system keeping energy flowing and trains on time is becoming more vulnerable to attacks from hackers, whether they are individuals acting alone or as an organized criminal enterprise. A catastrophe, an electronic Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11, can be triggered by a hacker an ocean away.
The Northwest, with its universities, federal laboratories and high-tech companies, is increasingly on the front lines in the need for digital security. Some of the earliest digital security companies, like WatchGuard Technologies, got their start in Seattle. And when the first major internet worms spread, IT security practitioners in the Northwest contributed to the fight.
The Northwest continues to be an IT hotbed-filled with people who are developing the latest defenses in the digital security war, says Karen Worstell, managing principal for W Risk Group, a Gig Harbor cybersecurity company.
Several colleges like the City University of Seattle have launched new degree programs to follow this burgeoning trend, while the University of Washington and the University of Idaho already have well-established programs.
In some areas, private companies like Microsoft, Boeing and Expedia are investing more in cybersecurity than some federal agencies. Herbert Lin, chief scientist for the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board National Research Council of the National Academies, says that while many sectors of the federal government are secure, "some parts of the federal government are much worse than the average in private industry. On average, government cybersecurity is not as good as I would like and, as a citizen, I want the government to get a lot better."
Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, director of the Center of Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the University of Washington, says even lone unaffiliated hackers have become more sophisticated, and better tools make even unsophisticated hackers dangerous.
"When I started in this field, we were worried about 12-year olds on caffeine staying up all night on the internet," she says. "Now, organized crime has discovered the internet. They have realized this is a bonanza."
Deborah Frincke, the chief scientist for cybersecurity research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland, says that to win the cyberwar, the industry needs well-educated talent and evolving public policy. "If we don't it will just be this continued Wild West approach. Some will have really good security by building tall fences and hiring really good guns, and others will just be stomped over."