BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: Science/Nature: Specials: Washington 2000  
News Front Page
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 12:27 GMT
Cyber-terrorists wield weapons of mass disruption
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington DC

Terrorists are not just exploring weapons of mass destruction but also weapons of mass disruption, said the director of the Global Organised Crime Project on Friday.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, is at the US Centre for Strategic and International studies, and joined other experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting to assess the threat of cyber-terrorism.

Extremists used to work in relative isolation, but they can now use the internet to recruit like-minded people, he said.

And in the digital age, the old-fashioned wiretap may be ineffective against terrorists using strong encryption, he added.

In testimony before Congress this week, FBI Director Louis Freeh said: "Convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the World Trade Centre bombing, stored detailed plans to destroy United States' airliners on encrypted files on his laptop computer."

"Hacktivists" are using their computer cracking skills to deface websites and to make a point.

In his testimony, Mr Freeh also said: "A group calling itself the Internet Black Tigers conducted a successful "denial of service" attack on servers of Sri Lankan Government embassies. Italian sympathisers of the Mexican Zapatista rebels attacked web pages of Mexican financial institutions."

Access denied

The global nature of the internet and of these attacks highlights the challenges facing law enforcement, several of the experts said.

The recent attacks against Yahoo, eBay and several other high-profile websites could have been launched from anywhere in the world.

To trace the attack back to its source would require following the original command back hop through hop through the internet, according to Scott Charney, who before joining PricewaterhouseCoopers worked for the US Justice Department as part of the Computer Crime Initiative.

In the US, many Internet Service Providers are not keeping log data because there is no commercial incentive to do so, and in the European Union, several privacy directives call on providers to delete data on customers' activities after their monthly bill is paid, Mr Charney said.

This effectively erases the electronic trail, and the maze of regulations governing electronic search warrants around the world may delay law enforcement long enough for the electronic trail to go cold.

Daniel O'Connor with the National Infrastructure Protection Centre said, "Anyone who is sophisticated knows to bounce through a foreign country. It makes our jobs much more difficult."

Information warfare

But it is not simply terrorists or individual hackers but also foreign governments that might attempt to exploit computer network vulnerabilities to disrupt the technology-dependent United States.

"No country can match the US in terms of conventional weapons so cyber-terrorism becomes a credible alternative," Mr de Borchgrave said. "China has conducted war games designed to cripple and confuse a nation's computer power."

FBI Director Freeh said in his testimony that foreign countries perceive the US reliance on information technology to control critical government and private sector systems as the country's Achilles' heel.

"For example, two Chinese military officers recently published a book that called for the use of unconventional measures, including the propagation of computer viruses, to counterbalance the military power of the United States," Mr Freeh said.

Cyber-terrorism sceptic

But at least one panellist was sceptical about the threat of cyber-terrorism.

Kevin Poulsen knows about hacking. In 1982, he gained access to a dozen computers on Arpanet, the forerunner of today's internet, using a TRS-80 colour computer. He was 17 years old at the time.

Mr Poulsen now works for, a security clearinghouse website, and he said information systems have become more secure, not less, over time.

And he dismissed the idea of an "Electronic Pearl Harbor," a term used often in information warfare circles to describe a potentially crippling and deadly cyber-attack.

"At Pearl Harbor, we lost the Pacific Fleet. We haven't even had an information Grenada," he said, referring to the US invasion of the Caribbean island in the 1980s.

He was careful to say that although he believes the threat posed by cyber-terrorism to be overblown that it does not mean that he is not concerned about security on the Internet.

But he added, "We don't need to invent an enemy to protect our networks."

Daniel O'Connor
Denial of service attacks could have been prevented
The BBC's Pallab Ghosh reports
Secrecy surrounds a new US unit set up to fight cyber crime
See also:

18 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
09 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
10 Feb 00 | Business
16 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
Links to more Washington 2000 stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Washington 2000 stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |