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Targets for Terrorism: Information Infrastructure

Author: cfr.org editorial staff
Updated: January 1, 2006
This publication is now archived.

What is information infrastructure?

A network of computers and communication lines underlying critical services that American society has come to depend on: financial systems, the power grid, transportation, emergency services, and government programs. Information infrastructure includes the Internet, telecommunications networks, “embedded” systems (the built-in microprocessors that control machines from microwaves to missiles), and “dedicated” devices like the computer you’re using now.

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The U.S. information infrastructure, which is mostly privately owned, is an important resource in peacetime and a vital one during a crisis. During the September 11 attacks, for example, telephone traffic surged, straining the capacity of switching equipment and cellular networks, and failures in the New York Fire Department’s radio system meant that some firefighters did not receive orders to leave the Twin Towers before they collapsed.

What does information infrastructure have to do with terrorism?

Protecting the information infrastructure is a key aspect of homeland security, experts say. U.S. officials and information technology (IT) experts worry that terrorists might try to undermine America’s information infrastructure with acts of cyberterrorism.

Experts also say that the federal government could modernize its information infrastructure and use it as a tool against terrorism.

How could information technology be used to fight terrorism?

In many ways, from programs that can assist in foreign-language translations to massive databases that compile data and search for patterns that might signal future attacks. Proposals for the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and from other federal agencies have asked for funding to jump-start computer-aided threat assessment. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft said in April 2002, “Information is the best friend of prevention.”

While experts agree that the U.S. government’s information systems are outdated and inadequate, some IT experts warn that the creation of centralized databases could invite abuse by law enforcement officials and compromise the privacy of ordinary citizens without necessarily preventing terrorist attacks.

Which government agencies collect information relevant to terrorism investigations?

Federal, state, and local agencies collect data in many ways, including passport inspections, visa application interviews, customs declarations, local police investigations, foreign and domestic intelligence reports, social welfare programs, and tax filings. More than sixty federal agencies gather information that could shed light on terrorist activity.

Is this information stored on computers?

Not always. Some agencies keep some records only on paper or are slow to transfer information to computers.

How up-to-date are the government’s information systems?

It varies, experts say, but many agencies depend on obsolete computer systems—decades-old mainframes designed for specific tasks, programmed in now-obscure coding, and incompatible with other computers, often even those within the same agency. Complex purchasing procedures, the high cost of modernization, and inadequate funding mean that government computer systems lag far behind those in the private sector. The Customs Service and the INS are each now spending more than $1 billion on multiyear programs to modernize their systems.

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