updated 8/9/2005 4:53:20 PM ET 2005-08-09T20:53:20

Most businesses do not report cyber attacks to law enforcement authorities, fearing the disclosure would harm their image and benefit rivals, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Tuesday.

This reluctance has become especially important at a time when identity theft is growing rapidly and terrorists are increasingly using the Internet, Mueller said in a speech to the InfraGard national conference, private companies that share security tips and expertise with the FBI.

"Today a command sent over a network to a power station's control computer could be just as deadly as a backpack full of explosives," Mueller said.

Business leaders last month announced an education campaign to better protect sensitive client information from hackers and other thieves, after a string of high-profile data thefts and losses.

In June, CardSystems Solutions Inc. disclosed that a breach of its system that processes transactions between merchants and credit card issuers exposed 40 million accounts to possible fraud.

Mueller's comments were based on an annual survey conducted by the FBI and the private Computer Security Institute that found just 20 percent of businesses reported computer intrusions last year, a figure that has held steady for several years.

The reasons cited most often for keeping the incidents quiet were loss of business to competitors and potential damage to a company's image among consumers.

Mueller said he understood those concerns and promised the FBI would be more sensitive in responding to computer hackings. "We also recognize that putting on raid jackets and rushing in may not be the best answer in situations such as those," he said.

Businesses must overcome those fears, he said, and be more forthcoming in reporting computer hacking to authorities. "Maintaining a code of silence will not benefit you or your company in the long run," he said. "We cannot investigate if we are not aware of the problem."

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