The U.S. government's ambitious cyber alert system transmitted its first Internet warning on its opening day Wednesday, cautioning computer users about a fast-spreading infection that causes victims to launch an electronic attack against Microsoft Corp.
The Homeland Security Department said the Web site where Americans can sign up for the free cyber alerts and computer advice, www.us-cert.gov, received more than 1-million visitors Wednesday, up from a few thousand visitors a day earlier.
The new National Cyber Alert System will send urgent e-mails about major virus outbreaks and other Internet attacks as they occur, along with detailed instructions to help computer users protect themselves.
The program, announced Wednesday, represents the government's effort to develop a trusted warning system that can help home users and technology experts. The announcement comes 11 months after such an alert system was described in the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, a series of proposals endorsed by the Bush administration and the technology industry to improve online security.
The government christened the warning system by transmitting its first alert about a newly discovered version of a virus known as "Mydoom" or "Novarg."
"There is a clear need for this kind of system to be developed," said Amit Yoran, the Bush administration's cyber security chief. "Receiving information from the Department of Homeland Security gives people a certain level of confidence."
The alerts will function independently from the Homeland Security Department's well known color-coded system, which reflects the national threat level.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., quickly criticized the alert system, describing it as inadequate because it doesn't require companies that suffer major virus outbreaks to notify the government. He also predicted that hackers will mimic the e-mail alerts transmitted by Homeland Security to trick computer users. "I would bet money that will happen," Schumer said.
Yoran said alerts will be digitally signed so computer users can determine the e-mails aren't forged; each alert also will be published on the Web site for the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
Other efforts to spread warnings about Internet attacks were sharply criticized by congressional investigators, who complained in July 2002 that those earlier warnings were mostly issued after Internet attacks were long under way. They blamed the government's inability to analyze imminent attacks, fears about raising false alarms and staff shortages.
Wednesday's inaugural alert came roughly five hours after researchers discovered the latest version of the virus spreading on the Internet. Yoran acknowledged the difficult balance between providing warnings quickly and making sure they're accurate.
"I'm sure we'll take some kicks in the shins," he said.