Welcome to the digital world. That was not the actual wording of the message hackers left on Japanese government Web pages this week, but it was the meaning for anyone who bothered to read between the lines. This week’s incidents were an embarrassment, or at most a nuisance. Next time, the damage could be much greater. It is past time for the government to take serious action to safeguard its communications networks and prevent future hacker attacks.

The attacks followed a conference held in Osaka over the weekend in which participants argued that reports of large-scale Japanese atrocities during the Nanjing Massacre remain unverified. The fact that the symposium took place — and in a public, city-sponsored forum — triggered Chinese protests, both official and otherwise.

In the four days since the conference, computer hackers have broken into computers several times at the Science and Technology Agency, the Management and Coordination Agency and the Economic Planning Agency. Most of the attacks were pure vandalism: Web pages were defaced and a link to a pornographic site was installed; in one case, however, data were reportedly erased. (They were retrieved from backup files.) It is assumed that private citizens are behind the assaults on the computers.

The government responded by convening a crisis-management meeting of computer-section chiefs from all the ministries. A special police force with 30 officers was launched Wednesday to fight the intruders. The police will be aided by a new law, due to go into effect in a few weeks, that bans such illegal access.

The attacks came days after a government meeting at which officials decided to raise computer security to U.S. standards within three years and to draw up a strategy to counter “cyber-terrorism” by the end of this year. Such a strategy is overdue. The number of cases of intruders gaining illegal access to computers is doubling every year. According to the Japanese Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center, a private organization, there were 923 incidents last year. That figure is certainly understated. Technology managers are reluctant to admit that their defenses have been penetrated. Still worse, the hackers frequently go undetected.

But if caution is in order, hysteria is not. As Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki noted, such attacks have taken place elsewhere in the world. Every week, some company or government announces that it has been hacked. Moreover, promising to make Web sites tamper-proof will only raise the ante and attract more hackers eager to prove their skills. Internet home pages are designed to be open to the public and only by denying outsiders access can they be safeguarded. Of course, that defeats their very purpose.

While those computers will remain vulnerable, others must be better protected. Communications networks are the backbone of any modern economy and essential to the functioning of a government. They are essential to national security — and as a result they have increasingly become the focus of defense establishments worldwide.

During the Kosovo War, hackers with Chinese Internet addresses mounted a cyber blitz against U.S. and allied forces after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Last summer, Taiwanese and Chinese hackers traded acts of vandalism on the two governments’ Web pages after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said that the two should deal with each other on a government-to-government level. U.S. officials have also revealed that for over a year, Russia-based hackers conducted a series of assaults on government computers, trying to gain access — and sometimes succeeding. (A grain of salt is also in order: Governments know that the press is quick to seize on such incidents. Subsequent investigations have revealed that agencies periodically exaggerate events to help pump up their budgets.)

Information technologies are changing the ways governments must think and act. The proliferation of official Web pages is evidence of a new form of democracy; the emergence of cyber-terrorism is a new security threat. While Japan has lagged behind the U.S. and other countries in its adoption of new technologies, the fact that networks are global in nature means that this country, like any other latecomer, faces a steep learning curve. Once a nation plugs in to the Internet, it is vulnerable to the best and the worst that the world has to offer. Worrying as that prospect might be, we have no choice.

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