Security forces brace for "Cyber Terrorism" threat
By Bernhard Warner
Date: December 09, 2003
LONDON - Counter-terrorism agents are confronting a new threat -- teams of computer hackers aiming to maximise the death toll in terror attacks by paralysing the emergency rescue services.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, police and intelligence officials studying terror plots have been forced to add a new dimension to their planning: groups of highly skilled cyber-terrorists.
"The first cyber terrorism attack will most likely not be somebody targeting a company. What we will see is a blended, or multi-prong attack," said Richard Starnes, director of incident response for British telecoms firm Cable & Wireless
A potential scenario might be this:
A truck carrying explosives races towards the main entrance of a city centre rail station at rush hour, just as a computer whiz hacks into the emergency response telephone network.
There is a huge blast. With the communications system knocked out, police and rescue units are paralysed. Emergency teams lose precious minutes attending to the scene and the toll of dead and injured climbs.
This type of chain of events was, until recently, spoken about in hypothetical terms. Now, police forces and intelligence agencies around the world say it's not a matter of if, but when.
Security officials have many names for a scenario in which computer attacks are combined with a real world terror plot -- "Cyber Terrorism," "Blended Digital Threats," even "Digital Armageddon".
With more of the world's critical infrastructure -- from power grids to air traffic control networks to emergency response hotlines -- linked to computer networks, the risk of a hacking intrusion has become all the more tangible.
And terror groups, already adept users of the latest technologies, are honing their hacking skills to maximise bloodshed, experts said.
"We will see a force multiplier effect where you hit a chemical factory, for instance, at the same time you lodge a digital attack. That way, they can ratchet up the body count by delaying the response time for essential emergency services," Starnes said.
A wave of cybercrime and damaging e-mail viruses has made Internet security an urgent topic at the highest levels of government and law enforcement.
Last week, industry and national security officials met in both California and Germany to brainstorm on the matter. This week, leaders from over 200 nations will meet at a United Nations IT conference in Geneva to discuss boosting network security.
"NOT YOUR NO-HOPERS"
Organised crime rings have become highly adept at using sophisticated hacking schemes -- from digital attacks capable of knocking businesses offline to breaking into companies' networks to steal vital information -- and the fear is that terror groups have acquired similar expertise.
"These are not your no-hopers. These are people of the modern world, totally fluent in technology. They know how to use the latest technologies," said Kevin Rosser, Middle East Analyst for UK-based security firm Control Risks Group.
The September 11 attacks proved this, with some of the hijackers coordinating their movements by mobile phone, using e-mail to arrange money drops and pick-ups, and even using the Internet to buy plane tickets.
"September 11 was a modern-day plot, one that could have only happened in 2001," he said.
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