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A 'cyber 9/11' - move over Al Qaeda

Imagine a doomsday scenario where all systems crash. There is no electricity. You can't use your phone or email, can't get money from ATMs. Wall Street goes beserk, and trains and subways are vulnerable. 

It is harder to imagine a devastating cyber attack than it is to be fearful of hijacked planes crashing into highrises - but increasingly counterterrorism officials are asking us to do just that.

On Tuesday, the U.S. director of national intelligence appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and warned that cyber-attacks and cyber-espionage have replaced Al Qaeda as greater threats to the U.S.

Last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told the Stars and Stripes that we were in a "pre-9/11 moment" and warned that attacks on public utilities could spark a "cyber Pearl Harbor."

In response to Panetta's October comments, Canada's Public Security Minister Vic Toews told reporters in Ottawa, "I don't know whether he has overstated it, but certainly there is a risk to cyber security."

The Pentagon has reportedly created 13 teams of computer programmers and experts trained to carry out offensive cyberattacks if the U.S. were hit. As the New York Times noted, this admission Tuesday is the first time the Obama administration has publicly admitted to developing "such weapons for use in wartime."  

Canada has the CCIRC, the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, but security analysts have recently citicized Canada's efforts as lagging behind. "The Canadian government has been somewhat remiss in its approach to the problem," Queen's University professor and internet security expert David Skillicorn, told the Financial Post.

As a damning auditor general reported highlighted last year, the CCIRC was keeping banking hours - although someone could be paged on the weekend.

Working hours at the CCIRC have reportedly been increased since

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm






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