Computer Crime Research Center


Tech threats: the new front in the War on Terror

Date: September 02, 2004
By: Greg Hughes

There's little doubt nowadays that the 21st century is shaping up to be a very unstable era in human history. Non-state actors like al-Qaeda are stepping up their fight against nation-states, employing mostly conventional, low-tech solutions to their acts of terrorism.

Yet there is a new frontier emerging in the War on Terror – cyber terrorism. As the internet continues to grow in popularity and usage around the globe, more malevolent forces are using the web as a means to spark fear and spread their messages of hate and violence.

Cyber terrorism is a diverse set of technologies that ranges from viruses and denial-of-service attacks to posting messages, pictures and videos on websites whose purpose is to scare people.

It's particularly effective in the West because westerners are the most connected people in the world. For terrorists, the web offers the ability to reach the common people in a way that's uncontrolled and unnerving. If a website or virus reaches enough people and incites enough chaos, it's a cheap, easy way to scare people on a level similar to a "real world" terrorist attack. And you don't even have to be in a western country to make it all happen.

The most obvious example of cyber terrorism so far has been websites devoted to westerners held hostage by terrorists in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. The videos available on these sites have featured content that includes torture and live beheadings – content not suitable for any time of day on TV or radio. But online, the curious will, eventually, find it.

More disturbing, however, is that a cyber terrorist attack could, in theory, help to create more damage than the events of 9/11 could ever have accomplished.

Here's a potential scenario. Let's say a major city in the U.S. or Canada is hit with a terrorist attack similar to the attacks on the World Trade Center. The casualties are not as high as 9/11, but many people are injured and need help quickly.

Under normal circumstances, emergency dispatchers would be sending medical teams to help the wounded. But what if, at the same time as the physical attacks were occurring, an army of viruses with instructions to crash communication networks – emergency radio frequencies and cellphone radio towers – was deployed from elsewhere?

This isn't an unfeasible scenario; various viruses such as MyDoom have taken down entire networks with relative ease. Who's to say that an enterprising, net-savvy terrorist group couldn't make this happen? And how many more people could be in trouble because our high-tech communication networks are down after the fallout of a major explosion?
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