Guest column: Frankly speaking: Who's next?

IT is the enabler of global trade. That makes us a plump target.

And here we all thought the big problem was going to be Y2K. In downtown Seattle last Tuesday, nobody was thinking about 99 turning to 00. Tens of thousands of protesters who, for various reasons, oppose global free trade marched, chanted and blocked streets. A few hundred of them rioted, smashing windows, slashing tires and setting fires.

Meanwhile, something else was running amok Tuesday in corporate cyberspace. Dozens of corporate sites were hit by a new versionof the e-mail worm that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage last June - back when, as it happens, anti-free-trade protesters were rioting in London.

Coincidence? Maybe - but it won't be for long.

See, the World Trade Organisation makes an easy target for those attacking the ills of capitalism. Whether it's jobs shipped overseas, rain forests leveled or third-world workers exploited, the WTO seems to catch the blame.

That's why the WTO meeting sparked the biggest protest demonstrations in the US since the Vietnam War, why hard hats and students and environmentalists and religious people and anarchists all converged on Seattle by the thousands. They see global free trade as what makes all those problems possible.

Which means we're next. It won't be long before they figure out what we already know: Information technology - and especially the global Internet, the World Wide Web - is what makes global free trade possible.

After all, modern global supply chains can't exist without instantaneous data communication around the world. Multinational companies can't function without their global intranets and the extranets that connect them with business partners and customers. And e-commerce is the freest kind of free trade - any product or service, ordered at any time and delivered from anywhere.

IT is the fundamental enabler of modern global trade. Without it, the WTO is nothing more than a bunch of bureaucrats trying to find their way around Seattle. The WTO may make it legal, but IT makes it happen.

That makes us a plump target.

Now understand: The vast majority of those who don't like global free trade do like IT. It's as useful to them as it is to their foes. Labor, environmental, wildlife and religious groups all use IT to run their own organisations and the Internet to get their messages out to the rest of the world.

But then, the vast majority of those Seattle protesters just wanted to get their message out, too. Only about 1% were window-smashing, tire-slashing rioters. And only a few will do whatever damage they can to IT - yours, your competitors', everyone else's.

There are already plenty of crackers trying to hack into your systems just for fun or malice. Now some of them will decide it's a political statement.

There are already virus writers trying to cripple your users and crash your networks. Now some will say they're just protesting corporate greed.

There are already electronic vandals willing to shut down phone systems or even the Internet, just to show they can do it. Now some will claim they're rebels with a cause.

Bogus? Sure. Every bit as bogus as the rioters who went to Seattle because they wanted an excuse to smash and loot and burn. But that doesn't make them any less dangerous.

So tighten up your security. Lock down your firewalls. Update your virus scanners. Beef up your encryption. And make sure all your IT people - and all your users, too - keep a sharp watch for the first sign of trouble. Because unlike Y2K, this won't be over on January 1. This one won't go away for a long, long time.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for 20 years. His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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