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Think tank warns of cyberterrorist plots

Research suggests that America needs to prepare for Net warfare.

December 18, 1998
Web posted at: 10:00 PM EST

by Nancy Weil

(IDG) -- Cyberterrorists are plotting all manner of heinous attacks that if successful could "destabilize and eventually destroy targeted states and societies," according to a gloomy new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report, which offers recommendations for averting cyberwarfare, has in its introduction alone enough dire news to make the year 2000 computer glitch seem like a minute blip on the worry scale.

Consider this: "Information warfare specialists at the Pentagon estimate that a properly prepared and well-coordinated attack by fewer than 30 computer virtuosos strategically located around the world, with a budget of less than $10 million, could bring the United States to its knees."

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"Such a strategic attack, mounted by a cyberterrorist group ... would shut down everything from electric power grids to air traffic control centers. A combination of cyberweapons, poison gas, and even nuclear devices could produce a global Waterloo for the United States."

What, me worry?

For those who believe U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have a handle on the threat of cyberterrorism, consider this: "In fact, law enforcement's electronic capabilities are from 5 to 10 years behind the transnational crime curve."

With that comforting thought in mind, the report notes, "Cyberterrorists, acting for rogue states or groups that have declared holy war against the United States, are known to be plotting America's demise as a superpower."

At the top of the list of rogue cyberterrorists is Osama bin Laden, who allegedly is plotting terrorist attacks on either New York or Washington, D.C. Computers are key in his arsenal, said the CSIS report.

"In today's electronic environment, many haters can become a Saddam Hussein and take on the world's most technologically vulnerable nation," notes the report, which tells of satellite uplinks among terrorist liaisons around the globe. The authors make it clear that they are indeed trying to scare the complacency out of us.

Cyber-Cold War

While enemies of the U.S. realize they can't take on the nation with conventional weapons, their alternative is cyberweapons launched by keyboards. "Information warfare tools" like logic bombs, viruses, worms, and Trojan horses are proliferating.

"They are no longer the stuff of science fiction. America's adversaries know that the country's real assets are in electronic storage, not in Fort Knox," the report said. CSIS counts eight countries with cyberwarfare capabilities as advanced as ours.

The U.S. has no laws or regulations regarding when to launch a cyberattack or counterattack in this new postnuclear age.

"Most political leaders are reluctant to face the fact that not only are the traditional prerogatives of national sovereignty being challenged by the Information Revolution but they are disappearing rapidly in cyberspace," the report said. "The nineteenth-century model of an independent state has become one of trappings rather than substance."

CSIS, a privately operated public research organization, has some suggestions:

  • Explain the threat. U.S. officials should tell those in charge of critical infrastructures and its major users just what is the threat from strategic information warfare, and how to prepare.

  • Develop national security policies that consider the Information Revolution. CSIS recommends setting policy and objectives, determining who has authority for "offensive IW" (information warfare), and setting guidelines for targets.

  • Make strategic information dominance a national security objective.

  • Adopt policies to ensure critical government services will continue.

  • Work with the private sector.

  • Prepare the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence agencies for cyberwarfare.

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