A PsychologyofTerrorism.com Resource



No longer is it necessary to use bombs, poisons, or other violent means to inflict terror. The New Millennium has seen the introduction of a new form of terrorism where electronically stored data can be altered or deleted in a manner that aversely affects the victims. Consider, for example, if all of your financial records were wiped out overnight. Or better yet, what if all of your savings, retirement and social security earnings, automobile titles, etc. were all eliminated but your home mortgage and credit card debts were left in tact or even fictitiously increased. Wow, what a life wrecking event for most people. Identify theft is problematic enough; trying to re-establish your credit after someone else has run up bills and other debts using your name is very difficult but at least it usually leaves your assets intact.


For students the example is even simply: consider that all of your college credits were erased but your student loans and other financial obligations remained on record. How would you straighten this out? Do you really think that all of your past professors would remember that you attended their classes and what grades you earned for what semester? I wouldn’t count on it!


Why use Cyber-Terrorism?


Cyber-terrorism has the advantage over other forms of terrorism in that it doesn’t require the terrorist to have physical access to his victims. It can be performed anywhere in the world where an Internet connection exists which today includes even remote locations in third-world countries. Any cyber-café can be home to a cyber-terrorist. These locations are frequently used for the Nigerian-bank scam where people ‘rent’ time on a computer and broadcast fake e-mails announcing found family fortunes, money to be transferred through a helping third-party, or promises large lottery winnings to millions of unsuspecting recipients daily.


There primary reason that cyber-terrorism really exploded with the New Millennium (pun intended) is because banks, government agencies, and many other financial institutions largely switched from dial-up or dedicated lines to the Internet to exchange information within their own organizations. This was a tremendous cost savings to these institutions, no longer requiring the infra-structure associated with the old technology, but it put everybody’s data at-risk. In the not-so-distant past, mainframe computers were accessed through dial-up or dedicated telephone lines. The database computer would answer, the remote computer or terminal would exchange handshakes establishing a connection (the protocols had to match), and security information such as username and password would be provided before gaining access to the information. With the dial-up approach, the potential cyber-terrorist literally had to have the correct telephone number. Dedicated lines were even more secure because they essentially meant that two or more points were ‘tied together’ through a private telephone line that others simply could not access.


Enter the new age of the Internet and cyber-terrorism: The Internet connects individual computers together through a common, shared network call the “Internet” (“inter-connections among networks” is a simple derivation of the term). Security measures are still in place requiring usernames and passwords for authentication, but the process of hacking into a database became much, much simpler with everything being connected to everything else on the Internet. Even high-security systems such as the CIA and the Pentagon use the Internet to exchange classified information. And even these high security systems are capable of being ‘hacked’ as evidence by the occasional newspaper articles breaking the news of a security breech. Of course these systems, including bank and credit card companies, are ‘hacked’ much more often than what is reported in the popular media. There are two obvious reasons for not reporting these security breeches: (1) it erodes customer confidence in the institution’s ability to protect their critical data, and (2) it encourages further ‘hacking’ into the system that was exploited. Tools and keys for breaking into secure online databases are even disseminated openly on the Internet, and numerous clubs exists for exchanging this type of information. The cyber-terrorist only has to join the frenzy of ‘peeking’ into forbidden databases and they’ve accomplished the first step necessary to exploit this as a tool of their terrorist activity. The next step is the easiest—they just have to modify the information in a manner that will create the intended terror.


Cyber-Terrorist Training ‘Camps’


Ironically, the most fertile training ‘camps’ for the future cyber-terrorist are American universities and technical training schools. These academic institutions provide the basic information on computer science including specialized courses on computer and Internet security. They provide the background education necessary to know the potential targets (e.g., database structure, security measures, Internet and other communication protocols). The target institutions themselves can provide a gold-mine of opportunities for cyber-terrorists. Penetrating the institution by becoming a trusted employee and even working on the potential target database provides the best opportunity to exploit weaknesses in the existing security measures. For those who haven’t the benefit of a university or technical school education but who still have a good aptitude for working with computers, special cyber-terrorist training is often provided by the terrorist organizations themselves. One of the advantages of working with Internet-based terrorism is that the Internet itself can be used as the training vehicle. The future cyber-terrorist doesn’t even need to visit a physical terrorist training camp in some remote location such as Afghanistan; instead they can ‘attend’ a virtual terrorist training camp online, anytime. Of course the FBI and the NSA attempt to track down and monitor such activity and if identified can lead to arrest of domestic cyber-terrorists, but often it’s nearly impossible to locate these online cyber-terrorist training ‘camps’ and even if the ‘student’ is identified they are very likely to reside in a foreign country which will not indict or extradite the would-be terrorist. And criminal penalties for attempting to ‘hack’ into a secure database tend to be light, with amble opportunity for the future cyber-terrorist to practice his skills while in prison, perhaps even earn a degree in computer science or Internet security systems.


Counter-Measures to Cyber-Terrorism


The FBI and other government organizations have special divisions to combat cyber-terrorism. Even local police jurisdictions often have specialists working within their departments. Private companies also hire specialists to fight cyber-crime, although they are not usually looking specifically for cyber-terrorism. Most of the problems encountered in financial institutions such as banks involve transferring funds to the individual who has ‘hacked’ into the system. There is less malicious intent in this type of fraudulent activity which is directed strictly at financial gain.


There is no easy solution to fighting cyber-terrorism. Law enforcement agencies attempt to track down and arrest whenever possible but very often this just isn’t practical. Cyber-criminals are very good at ‘keeping on the move’ electronically so that they are difficult to physically locate. Probably the most effect method is in increasing the security measures that keep cyber-criminals and cyber-terrorists out of the confidential databases and other online resources. Improving security measures involving passwords, authentication, and encryption are the primary tools available. This wages an unseen technology war between the would-be cyber-terrorist and data-sensitive institutions with law enforcement monitoring activity and responding to complaints.


Fortunately banks and other financial institutions keep back-up records of accounts and transactions often mirrored on remote computers. If the main computer were successfully ‘hacked,’ then the back-up data would be used to restore the correct information. The degree to which other institutions (e.g., medical records, school records) use similar precautions varies considerably, but it would be reckless for a major institution not to keep such data safely stored on a secure remote computer database. Truly successful cyber-terrorism involving financial or similar records would necessitate not only modifying the data on the main computer but also implanting a virus or other means of destroying all of the back-up data sources. In this context, it is important to note that few institutions store paper records anymore; paper is simply too bulky to store given the volume of information which is kept by these institutions. This leaves all information at-risk to electronic attack.


Although cyber-terrorism is usually thought of as ‘hacking’ into financial or other important databases through use of the Internet, another method could be to physically attack the electronic storage mechanism through use of a high-intensity electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which could potentially ‘erase’ all of the stored data. This would necessitate being physically close to the target, but the EMP is invisible and not easily identifiable except through the consequences of a successful attack. All computer and microchip-based systems could be immediately shutdown or even destroyed by an effective EMP blast that is otherwise unnoticeable. Fortunately, a high-intensity EMP generator has not yet been developed by terrorist organizations, although the military has spend considerable effort in developing such devices as potential weapons.


The Future of Cyber-Terrorism


Cyber-terrorism is expected to increase in the upcoming years. In fact, at any moment a major cyber-terrorist attack might bring-down the entire U.S. economy or launch a Predator-drone attach on some unsuspecting ally physically killing or injuring the intended target. The only way to effectively negate the threat of a cyber-terrorist attack is to revert back to the pre-Internet days of dial-up and dedicated lines for sharing secure information between computers, and that isn’t going to happen. The next best choice is to continue the high-tech war, ever increasing the security measures which protect sensitive data and have the potential to remotely launch weapons systems.


Nuclear weapons systems have numerous failsafe measures that make these systems inaccessible to cyber-terrorists. Smaller weapons platforms having fewer safeguards and might potentially be ‘hacked’ by cyber-terrorists and turned into weapons against the very people these systems were meant to protect. The human-factor remains one of the best safeguards against launching weapon systems against the wrong target and thwarting the efforts of cyber-terrorists (e.g., “you mean I am to launch a Predator strike against the White House?”). Of course most databases do not have a ‘human-factor’ in their transactions involving the automated transfer of funds, receipt of college credit, and other important data. These databases, therefore, remain more at-risk as potential targets for cyber-terrorism. In the final analysis, disruption of these information databanks may even better accomplish the goal of the terrorist who usually wish to instill the feeling of vulnerability to a widespread target audience.

Copyright 2010 Michael A. Bozarth, Ph.D.
Revised: 03 September 2010 13:06 EDT
Contact: bozarth@buffalo.edu