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White House offers help to industry on cyberattack

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday offered to help US businesses protect their computer systems from cyberattacks that President Obama called ‘‘one of the gravest national security dangers that the United States faces.’’

Administration officials warned during an event at the White House that an attack on critical sectors of the US economy could put the entire country at risk.

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The administration released a 39-page guide urging vital industries such as transportation, financial, health care, and energy to assess their risk and take action to close gaps. The Homeland Security Department also launched a voluntary program for businesses to get help at no cost from its cybersecurity experts about ways to counter threats.

The cyberthreat to the United States has been heavily debated since the 1990s, when much of American commerce shifted online and critical systems began to rely increasingly on networked computers.

Security experts began to warn of looming disaster, including threats that terrorists could cut off a city’s water supply or shut down electricity.

But what has emerged in recent years, according to cyber experts, is the constant pilfering of America’s intellectual property.

Administration officials say it’s difficult to put an estimate on the losses, especially since businesses don’t always know or tell the government if they’ve been attacked.

The guidelines and voluntary program come on the one-year anniversary of Obama signing an executive order calling for their creation.

Obama wants Congress to pass legislation that would give the government more power to secure networks and deter attacks, but lawmakers have disagreed over the need for legislation.

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson, who joined executives of utility Pepco and defense contractor Lockheed Martin on a panel at the event, said he opposed more government regulation and pointed to fear as ‘‘the best incentive that I have in this regard.’’

‘‘That’s what motivates on this nonstop,’’ Stephenson said. ‘‘It can be fatal if you have an exposure in this area.”

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