The trillion-dollar heist
In the meantime, our greatest cyber-security challenge may be something far more prosaic than the digitally induced mayhem envisioned by Clarke or faced down by Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard: theft.

In July, international authorities arrested a 23-year-old Slovenian, known as Iserdo, who allegedly masterminded the "Mariposa botnet," infecting as many as 12 million computers worldwide — including PCs at half of the Fortune 1000 companies and at least 40 major banks.

The botnet, which stole credit-card information and online banking credentials, is but the latest symbol of what has become a highly sophisticated cyber-crime sector.

Syndicates are renting out botnets to online thieves, hackers are selling Social Security numbers for a few bucks a pop, and cyber-sleuths are conducting high-level corporate espionage on a daily basis.

The best estimates have cyber criminals stealing some $1 trillion in intellectual property from businesses worldwide in 2008. And the true number is probably far higher.

Clarke himself writes of an unprecedented theft of American know-how in pharmacology, nanotechnology, and weapons design — all snatched up by the People's Liberation Army and delivered straight to China, Inc.

And it is this simple description of wholesale theft — rather than his dark vision of colliding trains and toxic gases on the loose — that may be the most compelling part of Clarke's book.

This is the cyber war of the moment — not blunt murder, but something equally worrisome: death by a thousand cuts.

David Scharfenberg can be reached

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