The threats of massive digital disruptions and other forms of cyberterrorism are real, but the effort to defend against those attacks means Americans need not give up their right to privacy, said Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.
"We worry not only about weapons of mass destruction, but also about weapons of mass disruption - ways to bring down our financial, government, military and other computing systems," said Gates. "This threat is real and would disrupt American physical and economic well-being and have a far broader world impact."
Gates was speaking at a technology conference in Washington sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Information Technology Industry Council. He outlined his company's vision for a successful technology-enabled homeland security effort that does as much to protect the privacy of Americans as it does to protect them from harm.
"The conversation America is having about homeland security information technology will be a force for more security and more privacy, more freedom and more freedom from fear," said Gates.
As part of a multipronged effort, Gates said Microsoft has already made significant investments in trying to make its own products more secure.
Last year, as part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, all 8,500 of its Windows developers were ordered to stop work on new features and spend several months locating and fixing vulnerabilities in the code.
"The cost was hundreds of millions of dollars, and the engineering work moved out the release of our recent Windows Server 2003 product by over six months," said Gates.
Gates added that Microsoft continues to work on the next-generation security computing base, a program formerly known as Palladium, which will integrate new security and privacy technologies into a future version of the Windows operating system. Microsoft engineers are also working on digital rights management technologies which, Gates said, will give users more control over how information can be used after it is transmitted over the internet.
"It can give people confidence in sharing information while limiting its spread," he said. "It can help law enforcement track down those who threaten our citizens, without threatening civil liberties."
Gates threw his support behind a federal plan to create an awards programme sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security to recognise supplier achievements in producing high-quality, reliable and secure software. But he also would like to see the federal government spend more money on research and development in security that can be used by the private sector.
"Public research and development will play a vital role in advancing the IT industry," said Gates. "It is important that this technology be available under permissive licences so that industry can take the technology and further develop it and commercialise it to make all software more secure."
Gates said Microsoft is committed "to working with the government and the entire industry to build a more secure computing system around the world". But he acknowledged that more international co-operation will be necessary.
"Our homeland security responsibility doesn't stop at the water's edge," said Gates. "This is a global threat, and it requires a global response. The nations all over the world have to mount a common defence."
Dan Verton writes for Computerworld