updated 4/12/2005 8:55:35 PM ET 2005-04-13T00:55:35

Experts from a consortium of colleges will lead a far-reaching effort to keep the nation's computer data safe from cyberattack, the National Science Foundation announced Monday.

The effort comes after a flurry of security breaches have dramatized the vulnerability of a society that increasingly entrusts its secrets to computers.

The idea is to look at ways to build more secure systems before a disaster along the lines of an "electronic Pearl Harbor," said S. Shankar Sastry, the University of California, Berkeley professor who will be principal investigator and director of the new center.

"If one thinks about the possibilities, they're really quite frightening," he said.

The new center, called TRUST, or the Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology, is expected to receive nearly $19 million over five years, with the possibility of a 5-year extension after that. TRUST is one of two NSF Science and Technology Centers to be funded this year. The second, centered at the University of Kansas, will study how the balance of mass in the polar ice sheets may affect sea level.

Berkeley will be joined by Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Mills College, San Jose State University, Smith College, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. A number of businesses also will be affiliated with the project, including Microsoft Corp., Hewlett Packard Co., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Symantec Corp.

TRUST researchers will explore developing technology that will help organizations build secure information systems. Beyond thwarting cyberthieves, they will also look at ways to keep systems running even when being struck, a concept known as "degrading gracefully under attack," said Sastry, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences.

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