WASHINGTON (AP) _ Soon, the government may not have to worry about viruses and other Internet threats on its sensitive data. That's because it may have a whole new Internet of its own.
Government officials asked the computer industry Wednesday to tell them how much the new network, dubbed GOVNET, would cost and how they could ensure their voice and data communications would be protected.
The government wants GOVNET to be physically separate from the Internet to make it safe from hackers, terrorists or the latest annoying virus.
``We were wondering whether or not it would be cost-effective to have not a virtual private network, but a real private network,'' the president's new cyberspace security adviser, Richard Clarke, said in an interview.
Clarke became President George W. Bush's top computer security adviser after serving as the nation's counterterrorism chief for more than a decade. During that time, Clarke warned about a ``digital Pearl Harbor'' cyber attack and pressed private industry to increase computer security by improving its products.
``We'll be working even more with them in the future, to secure our cyberspace from a range of possible threats, from hackers to criminals to terrorist groups, to foreign nations, which might use cyber war against us,'' Clarke said Tuesday when his new job was announced.
Recent independent reviews have shown computers at many government agencies are open to a hacker attack. In theory, GOVNET would be impervious to outside assault _ particularly from lone young hackers, the most common Internet attacker.
Clarke told The Associated Press that GOVNET may still be vulnerable to viruses on floppy disks, but those are far easier to stop than a computer virus that shoots around the Internet via e-mail.
The government wants the network up and running six months after a contractor is picked, although there is no deadline for the contract to be awarded.
``A system like this can help us break through the cloud of the Internet and provide a separate network where the integrity of government information can be protected,'' said Sen. Robert Bennett, a leader on computer security issues.
Clarke said he would like private companies developing GOVNET rather than government workers, because then ``it might actually work.''
``I don't think you want civil servants managing a network like this, and I don't think you want taxpayers to own it,'' Clarke said. The network would be managed by a private firm and leased for a fixed period by the government.
Many parts of the government, including the CIA and the Defense Department, already operate separate classified networks. Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department computer crimes prosecutor, said those networks could be expanded and integrated to form GOVNET.
One challenge is that GOVNET would have limited value because it could not access the World Wide Web. Government offices would likely opt to maintain a presence on the web in addition to being part of the secure system.
A better way, Rasch suggested, might be to improve the ways sensitive information is encrypted and sent over public networks such as the Internet.
``We're not building new highways so we can move tanks and troops from one place to another,'' Rasch said. ``We build the highways so they can handle the transfer of both cars and trucks and, if necessary, tanks and troops.''