Cyberterrorism is defined differently based on focus and use, though it is consistent in its concern for national security and public policy. The term tends to address two issues. Cyberterrorism can represent terrorist groups that use cyberspace to communicate, share information, and reap financial support. It can also address criminal uses of the Internet to commit threatening and destructive actions on citizens, property, and critical infrastructures. Cyberterrorism is also sometimes called digital terrorism, information warfare, and cyberwarfare. The term digital Pearl Harbor was used by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to describe an act of war against the United States using cyberspace rather than traditional weapons.
Although definitions vary among governmental agencies and researchers, terrorism tends to mean criminal acts against citizens, property, or the government as a method to further a cause, with targets representing objects or ideas opposed by the terrorists. Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon. Because of the emotional charge within terrorism, many violent and destructive events are initially assumed to be terrorist-driven endeavors, though not all are. A new concern or form of terrorism that is currently being examined is cyberterrorism.
Terrorist groups use the Internet in ways that support and further their cause or mission. They use e-mail to communicate with each other, as well as to plan events. Developing a Web site allows terrorists to provide information and solicit new membership to their group through news accounts, video clips, book lists, and blogs. These sites can increase public sympathy for their cause and increase media exposure beyond the Internet. The Internet allows terrorist groups to gather information on their “enemy” through governmental documents, video clips, blogs, free newspaper access, and other informative sites.
Cyberterrorism is also represented by actual terrorist activities in cyberspace. These groups will attempt to illegally access or “hack” into governmental computer network systems. They have attempted and succeeded in infiltrating computer systems of critical infrastructures like electrical grids and air traffic control systems. Various industries, such as banking, stock markets, various corporate companies, and the military, are prime targets of cyberterrorism. Cyberterrorists may attempt to place malicious software on flash drives used by government workers, thereby gaining illegal access into governmental databases and security clearance work areas.
There is controversy about the likelihood that cyberterrorism could lead to cyberwarfare. In cyberwarfare, battlegrounds would be in cyberspace instead of on land or would be a combination of both. The Aurora Experiment shows that it is possible for a person to illegally access a computer system to direct a generator to destroy itself by simply changing its default setting so that it reaches levels that cause the machine to malfunction. Cyberattacks might involve hacking into computer systems that control electric grids to take down power and keep it off for indefinite periods of time, potentially causing destruction and loss of lives due to the lack of electricity. Unmanned aircraft, called drones, have been found to be vulnerable to online attackers since they are directed remotely. In 2008 Iraqi hackers intercepted video feeds from U.S. drones, sparking concerns that cyberterrorists might eventually interfere with or take over a drone and use it to attack and destroy its own preferred targets. The online actions of hostile groups can lead governmental agencies to redefine what an act of war represents, both online and off-line.
Law enforcement agencies, from local to state to federal, must be vigilant to possible terrorist attacks that can occur online and off-line. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the agency responsible for ensuring ongoing communication among all agencies to share and inform each other of any potential attacks. Many departments have specialized cyberunits that focus on specific cybercrime, such as cyberterrorism. Law enforcement agencies must also develop action plans to deal with the aftermath of a large-scale attack. Critical infrastructures are necessary for human survival (e.g. electricity, water treatment facilities, and banks), so any attack on these structures will require law enforcement agencies to be the first responders to the situation. Training, planning, and resources are key to agencies being able to prepare for and possibly prevent a cyberterrorist act.
In October 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act. It was extended by President Barack Obama in 2011 for another four years. This act gives federal law enforcement agencies the ability to gather investigative surveillance and other information in order to protect the United States from a terrorist attack. The PATRIOT Act allows for “roving” wiretaps, greater ease in obtaining protected information on private citizens, as well as expectations that agencies will share information and resources. This act is valid for off-line and online suspected terrorist activities. Concerns are raised by implementation of this act due to the fact that it bypasses typical safeguards in the investigation of traditional, off-line criminal activities. Potentially this act allows federal agencies to gather information on the private activities and communications of citizens without a warrant, so that, for example, the viewing of some Web sites or certain online purchases could trigger a “red flag” to a governmental agency to investigate a person for possible terrorist activity.
Cyberterrorism has great potential to cause catastrophic destruction to people, property, and critical infrastructures. Although how damaging cyberterrorism could be is debated, there is unity in that it exists and it is being used by terrorist groups. Although prevention of a cyberterrorist attack is the ultimate goal, law enforcement agencies are preparing for the aftermath of such attacks. Cyberterrorism may be the next and most harmful form of terrorism in future years, though greater acknowledgement of its existence and exposure of its practices could provide the needed prevention tactics.
- Brown, Ian and Douwe Korff. “Terrorism and the Proportionality of Internet Surveillance.” European Journal of Criminology, v.6 (2009).
- Denning, Dorothy. Information Warfare and Security. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Longman, 1999.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “Cyber Terror.” http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/november-2011/cyberterror (Accessed May 2013).
- Taylor, Robert, Eric Fritsch, Tory Caeti, Kall Loper, and John Liederbach. Digital Crime and Digital Terrorism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011.
- USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving Life and Liberty. S. Department of Justice. http://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/highlights.htm (Accessed May 2013).
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