Now that the Pentagon is reportedly drawing up rules of engagement for a potential cyberwar against unspecified enemies, what can Americans expect should cyberterrorists decide to strike first?
Nothing much worse than the spotty service they already receive from their electric, telephone and Internet service providers, according to an expert here at the annual CyberCrime convention who recently modeled the scenario with government war game honchos and industry leaders.
"The idea that the U.S. collapses with one keystroke is clearly false and intended to frighten children," said Richard Hunter, vice president and research director at Gartner, the Stamford, Connecticut, research company that conducted the high-tech war games.
That's not to say all infrastructures are invulnerable. The teams found the Internet, while extremely difficult to take out completely by terror teams, could be "subverted" in a variety of ways without detection. And financial institutions could face vulnerabilities as well.
While agreeing that a so-called "digital Pearl Harbor" was unlikely, Casey Dunlevy, former senior U.S. intelligence officer, now a senior member of the government-funded CERT Analysis Center at Carnegie Mellon University, said it's not unreasonable to expect terrorists to use computers as a "force multiplier." For instance, terrorists could attempt to take down emergency response 911 networks after setting off a bomb.
While noting authorities have yet to document a case of cyber-terrorism in the United States, Dunlevy said the center also has noticed spikes in attacks on computers at U.S. financial institutions within 48 hours of international incidents.
Those findings carry some weight as administration officials reportedly have authorized the Pentagon to draw up guidelines for attacking enemy computer networks. The plan is said to include scenarios in which U.S. military operatives might use computers to disable foreign electrical, telecommunications and radar systems.
Hunter declined to speculate on what type of tools the Pentagon might use to carry out those operations, though he suggested use of viruses or worms could prove disastrous given their ability to spread back to U.S. computers. James Doyle, president of Internet Crimes Inc. and former executive officer of the NYPD Computer Investigation and Technology Unit, said a massive bombardment of enemy computer servers might prove an effective offensive.
But Hunter's own first-hand experience at attempting to hypothetically cripple the infrastructure of the United States suggested the obviously more limited efforts of a well-financed terror cell would meet only limited success.
Last July, the Gartner Group and 100 industry and government experts conducted an unscripted war game exercise at the U.S. Naval War College to develop a model for a plausible large scale cyberattack against America's critical infrastructure. Twenty experts acting as a terror cell financed with US$200 million were given five hypothetical years to accomplish the task of bringing America to its knees via a cyberattack.
They didn't do well. The telephone network, it turns out, is such a geographically large and redundant monster that it would require a large amount of physical attacks on actual equipment to bring it down. Success would also require lots of inside operatives working to destroy the network. "I think it's beyond the capability of most terrorist organizations," Hunter said, saying service might be knocked out for very short periods. "It's not a Pearl Harbor scenario. That's a service disruption. I get a few of those a year right now." Same for the electrical system, an attack upon which would require cooperation from insiders and lots of coordination across the nation.
As it turns out, the greatest potential threat against the country's infrastructure is one against the nation's financial networks. Terrorists with clean credentials could buy or even start a bank and get access to a financial clearinghouse that processes transactions.
Terrorists could then introduce a massive onslaught of fraudulent bills into the system, causing it to choke on all the unacceptable volume.