The Phantom of the Internet

Some months after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, U.S. President George W. Bush declared he was establishing an Office for Homeland Security. The administration's favorite threat to support the decision to create the new security infrastructure is cyberterror.

Some months after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, U.S. President George W. Bush declared he was establishing an Office for Homeland Security. Behind the patriotic name hides a monster. Dozens of government departments and agencies will be turned overnight into a new office that is meant to employ some 170,000 people. Bush is asking Congress for a special $37.4 billion budget to establish the office. "American now has one important and urgent mission," said Bush in a speech to federal employees, "protecting the homeland."

To prove to the American public just how urgent and important a mission it is, the administration began bombarding the media with apparent details and evidence of new threats the homeland faces. The administration's favorite threat is cyberterror, online terror. The media, obviously, happily grabbed the bait.

It began with an article in USA Today titled "Cyperspace: The next battlefield," in which the newspaper laid out the background to the threats built into the Internet. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post joined in, with an investigative report on how technology professionals working for Qaeda will flood American cities with water after they use the Internet to open dams.

ABC-TV, envious of the Post's success, ran its own, no less frightening, item on the subject. That week, BSA - the anti-piracy organization of the software manufacturers - jumped in with a report citing "technology professionals" fear cyberterror (yes, even professionals fear cyberterror. Scary, no?). USA Today came out with an another article, in which it described pro-Arab Web sites that encourage online terrorism. The New York Times and London's Times couldn't withstand the temptation, and they ran articles on Qaeda's people browsing the web.

The choice of the Internet as the source of all evil is no accident. Since Frankenstein, new technology is presented as demonic, frightening and unknown. The Israelis have their trauma from the Gulf War - missiles coming out of nowhere to land on their heads. No wonder that when the Israeli army wants something, it presses where it hurts.

The Americans, however, know nothing about sealed rooms. But as the most online country in the world - a 50 percent user rate - they know how powerful the Internet, and the mystery surrounding it, can be: it's everywhere and nowhere, a huge highway on which everyone has an equal chance to ride, and it's not really protected. Dozens of Hollywood movies show stars of the order of Tom Cruise and Robert Redford breaking into secret Internet sites using a program that in less than a second finds the password. If Cruise can do it, so can Mohammed.

As for the security threats, the media in Israel and America are fed almost entirely by the security forces, which mostly present scenarios, fears, theses, but no - or few - facts. Cyberterror reports often deal with sites written in Arabic (a type of code) and say that the pixels in the pictures hide valuable information (pixels? that must be dangerous).

Anyone using some simple logic finds a very different reality. True, the Internet is everywhere, and it is an important element in Americans' lives. But even terrorists know that it is a lot easier to walk into a school and spray pupils with a Kalashnikov, since even American kids do it every few months. They also know there's no need to strain the brain coming up with complicated codes when it's much easier to blow up in a bus, train station or museum.

But to justify the monstrously huge budget, a monstrous threat is needed, like something that endangers the electricity grid, airplane traffic, hospitals or traffic lights. Bush and his people think they found their threat and they present it over and over again in frightening tones and terrifying scenarios. But you can calm down. When the budget discussions are over, we'll be able to go back to Web browsing in peace. Until the next time.