Cyberterrorism: Is it a threat to us?
In the wake of recent terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and with our military already retaliating against terrorists, Americans are left wondering what lies in store for their country in the months and years ahead.
Predictions from experts and threats from extremists make another attack on the United States sound inevitable. The only question left unanswered is in what form will the next assault occur?
Some believe future attacks could come in the form of cyberterrorism -- information warfare -- the ability to sow fear and wreak havoc from the safety of a computer terminal. But the opinions as to how probable a serious attack could come via the Internet are as varied and wide-ranging as the terrorist groups that might attempt to carry out such an act.
As recently as four years ago an article in the Sacramento Bee quoted Barry Collin, the man credited with coining the term, cyberterrorism.
"Five or 10 years from now, we'll look back and say the terrorists of the '80s and '90s were really primitive because all they used were bombs and guns to kill people," Collin said. "Blowing up people does not cause a government to change policy."
The irony of his comment is painfully evident to us now, but the possibility of cyber-attacks still remains a potential danger for Americans. Whether a truly serious and effective attack could occur is still being debated.
"If all Internet communications were to be disrupted it could have serious economic effects, at least in the short term," says Mary Veronica Kolesar, a computer science professor at Utah State University. But the Internet was designed to be especially robust with respect to failures within the network. There is no "central" place to attack."
Most experts agree terrorists don't have the ability to disrupt a large amount of Internet communication, nor are they capable of, for example, hacking into a military site and taking control of a nuclear arsenal. But theoretically information warfare tactics could be used to cause a great deal of damage to civilian infrastructures such as power grids, rail and air transport, and telecommunications.
Mark Hewitt, a special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict, says there are two schools of thought when it comes to the question of cyber terrorism. "One side says that as long as terrorists seek to sow fear, doubt, and social and economic chaos, they will do so through traditional methods: bombs, assassinations, and large-scale destruction. Other methods -- like planting viruses or hacking into electrical power systems to shut them off -- lack the spectacular devastation required to really terrify people."
But Hewitt says there are others who believe it is only a matter of time until terrorists gain the technical skill they need to use computers to cause the same disastrous effects that they currently achieve through more simple means, such as bombs. And the greater fear is that cyber means could be used to enhance the effects of traditional attacks.
"Imagine, for instance, that an attacker used incendiary bombs to start a big fire in an urban area, released a crude chemical weapon to prevent rescuers from reaching the victims, then used a cyber attack to disrupt the normal function of all the traffic signals in town, snarling traffic and compounding the chaos," Hewitt says. "That's the kind of scenario (they) are concerned about."
Most people believe that terrorists still don't have the technical knowledge or capabilities to pull off a significant cyber attack. In a study of the myths and realities of cyberterrorism, Peter Flemming and Michael Stohl of Purdue University write, "'real' cyberterrorism has yet to evolve beyond the nuisance stage."
"The terrorists themselves are not high tech," says Bob Wood of USU Computer Services. "[They] are not patient enough or talented enough to write and execute a virus attack. Computer attacks are a silent threat. They do not destroy buildings or kill people. They create news stories, but are mainly a problem for system managers and a bother to users, but no permanent damage is done."
Stewart Brough, a computer science major at USU agrees. "I think that right now most problems in cyberspace aren't caused by actual terrorists, but by individual hackers. But I think eventually that terrorists will learn how to do it too, or persuade somebody else to do it for them."
As knowledge of the Internet spreads, the lines between terrorists and hackers may start to blur and the probability of cyber-attacks will most likely increase. Whether any of these assaults will be a cause for danger or just irritability remains to be seen. Until then, Americans will have to continue to live and deal with cyber-distrubances as they occur.
"The thing you have to remember is, if all else fails, we can still retreat to the real world," says Miles Johnson of USU Computer Services, putting things into perspective.