Computer Crime Research Center

Cyberterrorism Is a Concern
(By By Maj. Michael L. Hummel)

The general public has been alerted to the dangers of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons - what we have been calling weapons of mass destruction.

The term arises from the fact that these ruthlessly destructive applications of terror can cause extensive casualties and infrastructure damage if applied effectively. Examples are inhalation anthrax, sarin gas or suitcase-nukes, which were made in the 1970s for the Soviet KGB for terrorist purposes, and which an estimated 100 are reportedly unaccounted for from the former Soviet Union's inventory.

However, there is another type of threat not directly associated with mass casualties and enormous physical infrastructure damage. It is a new breed of terrorism that attacks prone targets by computer and poses potentially disastrous consequences for our computer-driven society.

Most citizens don't perceive cyber attacks as a serious threat to their lives - and shouldn't. Cyber threats are not ranked high as a serious threat compared to chemical, biological, or radiological threats; it just doesn't seem as physically threatening as a car bomb, a suicide bomber, being infected with small pox, or being exposed to sarin gas.

However, the goals of terrorists extend beyond causing an enormous amount of human physical casualties; their strategy also includes causing as much economic hardship in our country as possible. Terrorist's organizations such as Al-Qaeda want to destroy the economic infrastructure of America. Osama bin Laden stated that he was going after the economic infrastructure of the United States to destroy the American economy.

As a tool of war, cyber attacks will incrementally become a primary form of terror application, as softer, higher value targets become hardened by upgraded operational, personal, and physical security systems. This form of attack would have some advantages versus the common physical methods such as suicide or truck bombings. Cyber attacks can be executed from a remote area such as an apartment room, anonymously, and without the possibility of being compromised prior to the attack. The method is cheap, it would not require purchasing explosives or executing a suicide mission, it would be sure to attract media attention, it could disrupt vast technological systems resulting in billions of dollars of lost revenue, and could result in the loss of lives and psychological stress on our society.

Cyber threats can be organized around three broad classes of activity: activism, hacktivism/cybercrime, and cyberterrorism. The first category, activism, typically refers to normal, non-disruptive use of the Internet in support of an agenda or cause. Operations in this area includes browsing the Web for information, constructing Web sites and posting materials on them, transmitting electronic publications and information through e-mail, discussing political or social issues, forming coalitions, and plan and coordinate political or social activities.

The second category, hacktivism, refers to the marriage of hacking and activism. It covers operations that use hacking techniques against a target or multiple targets - this activity is normally illegal and can be considered cybercrime.

Hackers use the Internet with the intent of disrupting normal operations but not causing physical casualties (although the result is highly possible).

Examples are Web sit-ins and virtual blockades, e-mail bombs, web hacks, computer break-ins, stealing critical or personal information, and computer viruses and worms.

The final category, cyberterrorism, refers to the convergence of cyberspace and terrorism. It covers politically motivated hacking operations intended to cause grave harm such as loss of life or severe economic damage. An example would be penetrating an air traffic control system to cause disruptions or accidents, or manipulating military logistical operations or power grids to cause energy outages. There are eight critical infrastructure that constitute the life support systems of our nation and are determined to be vulnerable to cyber attacks, and thus have severe consequences to our economy, security, and way of life: telecommunications, banking and finance, electrical power, oil and gas distribution and storage, water supply, transportation, emergency services, and government services.

Hackers or terrorists did $15 billion in damage to the global economy last year using viruses, worms and other readily available tools.

This is part of the terrorists' strategy to chip away at our economy and weaken our country as a whole. Hackers or cyberterrorists operate freely in many environments because of the lack of laws preventing their operations. Regardless of the terminology - cybercriminals, hacktivists, or cyberterrorists - the goals and outcomes are the same. All who use technology or cyber space in a destructive and criminal manner against America are engaged in supporting terrorist operations.

Hummel, a native of Moundsville, holds a doctorate and is a professor of Military Science, Leadership, and Terrorism at California University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, and the National Corrections & Law Enforcement Training & Technology Center in Moundsville.


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