WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday warned that a major cyber attack is a looming threat and could have the same sort of impact as superstorm Sandy, which knocked out electricity in a large swath of the Northeast.
Napolitano said a "cyber- 9/11" could happen "imminently" and that critical infrastructure -- including water, electricity and gas -- was very vulnerable to such a strike.
"We shouldn't wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyberworld. There are things we can and should be doing right now that, if not prevent, would mitigate the extent of damage," said Napolitano, speaking at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington and referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Napolitano runs the sprawling Homeland Security Department that was created 10 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11 and charged with preventing another such event.
She urged Congress to pass legislation governing cybersecurity so the government could share information with the private sector to prevent an attack on infrastructure, much of which is privately owned.
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A cybersecurity bill failed in Congress last year after business and privacy groups opposed it.
The measure would have increased information sharing between private companies and U.S. intelligence agencies and established voluntary standards for businesses that control power grids or water treatment plants.
Business groups said the legislation was government overreach. Privacy groups feared it might lead to Internet eavesdropping.
New legislation is being considered, but it is unclear whether it will get through Congress.
President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order soon that would set up a voluntary system to help protect some critical infrastructure and offer incentives to companies that participate.