The United States is treating cybersecurity with the same mentality with which it was addressing physical terrorism prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the former director of the FBI said Monday.
Speaking at the inaugural SC World Congress in New York, Louis Freeh -- who headed the FBI for eight years until June 2001 -- said the threat of cybercrime and digital terrorism is not well understood, and there has yet to be a 9/11-type cyber-incident to change that prevailing mindset.
As a result, defending the country from internet attacks is not a top priority.
"Cybersecurity is not a problem for most Americans," Freeh said. "At least it is not right now."
Freeh, who now runs a law firm and a consulting company, said the nation's consensus is what will ultimately govern how the country will deal with cybersecurity issues in the months to come.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed perceptions and awareness of the terrorism threat -- people realized they were personally at risk. It took that catastrophe to mobilize the country in a way it wasn't ready for before, he said.
Before that, the FBI, for example, struggled to get money and personnel approved from Congress for the fight against terrorism, even in the wake of large-scale incidents, such as the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Freeh said.
"We were using grand juries, subpoenas and arrest warrants," he said. "That's how we dealt with [physical terrorism] until 9/11."
To secure data and intellectual property and protect the nation's critical infrastructure, huge challenges await, he said.
One challenge is getting people to understand and recognize the problem, the second is marketing the concern to obtain government support, and the third is finding a solution that meets Americans' expectations of civil liberties, he said. Discussion, resources and legislation are needed.
"It has to be led from Washington at the highest levels of our government," Freeh emphasized, adding that support from the private sector also will be key.
But, enormous hurdles lie ahead to rally public opinion and initiate a vast and extraordinary initiative in dealing with cybersecurity, and it is going to be more difficult today than it was six months ago, when the economy was stronger.
Freeh touched on the importance of the report from the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, which was released on Monday. The 44-page report details recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama.
“It is a very profound and critical report, and I commend the commission,” Freeh said. “You have done a service for not only the country, but also the upcoming administration.”
Freeh echoed the statements of the report -- that cyberdefense is a global burden, not just a homeland security issue. But a national strategy is required in dealing with it, he said.
Audience members agreed.
"I thought it was a very methodical argument he made," said audience member and World Congress speaker M. Eric Johnson, a professor in the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "We're kind of organized in a way that doesn't serve us well in prevention of a 9/11 event."