[ISN] Tech threats: the new front in the War on Terror
isn at c4i.org
Thu Sep 2 07:50:58 EDT 2004
September 01, 2004
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
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
The United States, the prime target of many terrorist groups, is
charged with the greatest burden in making sure cyber terrorism
scenarios don't actually happen. But it's a tough task, given how
quickly things can spread online. It only takes one downloaded file,
one opened e-mail, to spread a virus worldwide in a matter of days.
BBC News has reported that in July of this year, a U.S. Department of
Homeland Security internal memo described cyber terrorism as one of
America's top five security threats. A new unit within the DHS, the
National Cyber Security Division, was created explicitly for the
purpose of tackling net security and addressing criticisms that the
U.S. government has not done a good enough job of preventing future
cyber terrorist attacks.
Some have argued that cyber terrorism is hardly a threat in comparison
to a weapon of mass destruction going off in a major city like Chicago
or London. Perhaps they're right and talk of cyber terrorism is simply
fear mongering. But the tools that could enable terrorists to gain
possession of weapons of mass destruction are already online. And
technology that allows terrorists to gain information required to
create these weapons is only improving as the web continues to evolve.
Quantum encryption - the use of photons as gatekeepers - is one such
example. While still a few years away from being used for mass-market
purposes, quantum encryption could be the most impenetrable form of
encryption ever created. The use of decryption sequences employing
quantum variables known only to the sender and recipient makes the job
of intercepting and cracking encrypted e-mails, instant messages and
websites nearly impossible. This is very worrisome for groups devoted
to preventing terrorist acts, for how do you stop communications you
can't even find a source for?
Various websites have for years offered detailed instructions on
bomb-making techniques. So-called "darknets" - intranets that have no
IP addresses listed so they can't be traced - spring up overnight
where terror groups can share information secretly and disappear
without a trace.
Should we be worried? Possibly. Is this a reason to minimize our
dependence on the web? Not in the least. The internet is becoming the
tool of choice for many aspects of our lives; abandoning what has
become one of our greatest inventions would be to give in to fear. Yet
like most technology, the web is a double-edged sword: for every
benefit we gain from it, there's an equal trade-off.
All we can do is be vigilant, be responsible and be educated about the
web - the better informed we are, the less chance cyber terrorists
Greg Hughes is a 26 year-old freelance writer. He has written on
culture and technology for Shift, Silicon Valley North and
globetechnology.com, and he has also contributed to the National Post,
the Queen's Alumni Review and other publications. He holds a Bachelor
of Arts (Honours) from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
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