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US takes on the 'cyber-terrorists'

So many hackers are using the Internet to try to break into sensitive American military and civil systems that the United States government is about to create an expert team to counter "cyber-terrorism".

The move follows revelations that last year there were 250,000 attempted intrusions into the Pentagon's systems via the global computer network - more than double the number detected in 1994. Roughly 160,000 of the attempts are thought to have succeeded, though the US government has put no value on any damage.

Specialists testifying before US hearings on computer security suggested this week that corporations world-wide, especially banks and hospitals, may have lost more than $800m last year because of so-called "data-diddling" perpetrated by latter-day pirates on the Internet.

The number of computers connected to the Internet has grown explosively in the past two years, increasing at least tenfold. Many of those joining in that time have been companies, especially financial corporations. But simultaneously, the number of "attacks" on such systems has shot up, and often from hackers based abroad who can use the seamless communications links to cover their tracks.

In Britain, a bank was recently targeted by Russian hackers who were allegedly able to break into its internal network and divert funds to an account they had set up abroad. A court case is pending.

The US Attorney-General, Janet Reno, has proposed the creation of a team to investigate assaults on national security via the Internet, and to act as an emergency response unit when they occur. Likely to be unveiled this summer, it would be called the Cyber Security Assurance Group.

The US government's greatest concern, however, is that terrorists or even hostile states could cripple communications networks that are vital to the running of the national infrastructure. Ironically, the Internet was developed to guarantee exactly that sort of infrastructure in the event of an atomic strike by the Soviet Union. Instead, it might now turn out to be the architect of disaster.

Possible targets could be financial networks, including those of the main banks and the Wall Street trading floors, air traffic control computers, the power grids and the systems at the centre of national defence.

The risk has already been recognised by Congress. Drafts of the 1997 Defense Authorisation Bill to fund the US military include a requirement that the White House should report within six months on "the national policy on protecting the national information infrastructure from strategic attack".