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Va. Colleges Get Funding to Help Fight Cyber-Terror

by Amy Argetsinger, Washington Post

George Mason University and James Madison University will collaborate on a wide-ranging project to address the threat of cyber-terrorism, through a $6.5 million federal grant that is among the largest ever received by either school.

The effort will combine resources from GMU's School of Law and JMU's technology and information security programs to sponsor research and train business and government leaders in how to protect the nation's computer networks against attack.

National intelligence experts have lately raised concerns that terrorist hackers may be targeting the networks controlling the military, banking, emergency services or business.

"If the computers controlling these systems would fail, the systems would fail," said Mark Grady, dean of GMU's law school.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology grant was steered to the Virginia colleges by a congressional subcommittee chaired by U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). But college officials say they owe the award as much to merit as home-state politics: Both schools had earlier been recognized by the National Security Agency as top research centers for cyber security.

The two universities have collaborated before and were urged to join forces on the new Critical Infrastructure Protection Project to compete with better-known centers for information security, such as Dartmouth and Carnegie-Mellon. Other institutions are also receiving federal dollars to study network security, but only the Virginia project will involve law and public policy.

"Leveraging these two programs will give us a strength in this area that doesn't exist elsewhere in this country," said Linwood Rose, president of JMU.

College officials said the federal grant is one of the largest awarded to JMU, and the largest ever to GMU's law school.

The push to protect computer systems had its roots in a presidential commission formed after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to study how to defend the national infrastructure against terrorism. It gained momentum after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Wolf -- who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary -- pointed to recent news reports that computer hackers linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization or even the Chinese military may be looking for weaknesses in U.S. computer networks.

Wolf singled out China as a particular threat, criticizing its track record on human rights and aggression toward Taiwan.

John McCarthy, the newly hired executive director of the joint project, said that any attempts to enhance network security must combine research in technology, public policy and law.

For technology researchers, he said, the question is how to bolster networks and coordinate emergency services that often use different communication systems. Public policy analysts will have to figure out how to deal with multiple and widespread attacks, while legal experts must deal with how to prosecute hackers who attack across several jurisdictions while also preserving the privacy rights of U.S. industry.

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