After a series of cabinet-level meetings this month at the White House, computer security analysts say the Bush administration is considering creating a new agency or cyberwar center to better protect the federal government's computers and find ways to help private companies and public utilities fend off computer attacks.
Those attacks, which could be just a few key strokes away, could shut down U.S. power grids and communication and banking systems, security analysts warn.
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"Basically we would find the lights go out, the dial tone stop and we have no ability to access our money," Sami Saydjari, founder and president of the Cyber Defense Agency, told ABC News.
Internet security companies, such as Akamai in Boston, are currently tracking thousands of attacks against the U.S. government and corporate computer systems every day.
"We would not be in a good situation if we were to enter a cyberwar today," Akamai co-founder and chief scientist Tom Leighton said.
On most days, the single biggest source of those attacks is China.
"A Chinese general has talked about how they would reach out through cyberspace and turn off the American electric power grid before any conflict with the United States," said Dick Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official and now ABC News consultant.
White House advisors say alarm bells sounded when this past June Chinese hackers got into the unclassified computers of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
"The intelligence community has come to the recognition that China and other foreign governments have free run of American computer networks," Clarke said.
In addition to long-distance hacking, U.S. experts are concerned Chinese-made computer equipment could be sabotaged in ways that are undetectable, the so-called Trojan horse attack.
"My fear is that there are many, many Trojan horses, many, many malicious codes in a large number of our critical systems," Saydjari said. "And that there are just waiting to be activated through some trigger at some time."
The White House says it is asking for $6 billion in the latest budget to increase cybersecurity.