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Napolitano: 'Cyber 9/11' a very real threat

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says quick action is needed on cybersecurity measures that could 'mitigate the extent of damage' from an attack that could be imminent.

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By Reuters
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 7:56 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned on Thursday that a major cyber attack is a looming threat and could have the same sort of impact as last year's Superstorm Sandy, which knocked out electricity in a large swath of the Northeast.

Napolitano said a “cyber 9/11” could happen “imminently” and that critical infrastructure — including water, electricity and gas — would be vulnerable to such a strike.

“We shouldn't wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world. There are things we can and should be doing right now that, if not prevent, would mitigate the extent of damage,” said Napolitano, speaking at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington and referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001.

Napolitano runs the sprawling Homeland Security Department, created in March 2003 in the aftermath of 9/11.

She urged Congress to pass legislation governing cyber security so that the government could share information with the private sector to prevent an attack on infrastructure, much of which is privately owned.

A cyber-security bill failed in Congress last year because business and privacy groups opposed it. The measure would have increased information-sharing between private companies and U.S. intelligence agencies. It also would have established voluntary standards for businesses that control power grids or water treatment plants.

Business groups said the legislation was government overreach. Privacy groups feared Internet eavesdropping.

New cyber legislation is being considered, but it is unclear whether it will get through the gridlocked Congress.

President Obama is expected soon to issue an executive order that would set up a voluntary system to help protect some critical infrastructure and offer incentives to companies that participate.

Without a new law, however, companies can't be granted any kind of legal immunity for sharing information with the government and within the industry about potential threats.

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