Understanding Cyberterrorism

By Redins, Larisa | Risk Management, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Understanding Cyberterrorism


Redins, Larisa, Risk Management


THE THREAT IS UNDOUBTEDLY REAL. But cyberterrorism has yet to truly disrupt our lives in a way that galvanizes government, utilities and companies around investing in better safeguards. As we continue to debate the semantics of its definition and look for concrete examples of how cyberterrorists might bring down a business or a nation, perhaps the most pressing matter is to understand the nature of the threat.

Without a doubt, cyberterrorism poses a real threat to governments, organizations and individuals around the globe. In today's high-tech world, all types of computer networks are logical targets for all sorts of adversaries. In fact, according to a figure from U.S. officials, an astounding 60,000 new malicious computer programs are identified every day.

But how does one exactly define cyberterrorism? In a 2000 testimony before the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Representatives, Dorothy Denning of Georgetown University coined a still-popular definition of cyberterrorism: "the convergence of terrorism and cyberspace ... generally understood to mean unlawful attack and threats of attack against computers, networks and the information stored therein when done to intimidate or coerce a government or its people in furtherance of political or social objectives."

While that may be a mouthful, it does seem to sum it up. Depending on who you ask, however, cyberterrorism can have a somewhat surprising variety of meanings. Why this ambiguity? Well, since cyberterrorism is a relatively new term and is a product of the technological age in which we currently live, its definition is naturally still evolving. And as the technology surrounding cyberterrorism itself changes, the definition of the term will continue to change as well.

"It's hard to define something that's so intangible, so shifty, so below the radar of an otherwise taw-abiding society," said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst and journalist. "It's also hard to define something most of us would rather shunt out of sight. This is typical behavior, and nothing we haven't seen with earlier forms of anomalous technology-related threats, such as viruses and malware."

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The other hurdle he sees is our collective unfamiliarity with the threat. "It's hard to define something until the majority of society agrees it's a problem and has seen enough of it to merit actual recognition," said Levy. "Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Until it touches more of us in a more direct manner, expect it to remain difficult to pin down."

Perhaps the thorniest issue is that the term's root word is something society still struggles to define. "The simpler term 'terrorism' itself can have a variety of definitions, and 'cyber' just adds layers of complexity and misunderstanding to the issue," said Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based computer security company.

As the terms "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" have been debated in the past, when it comes to cyberattacks, there can be a fine line between activism and terrorism. And which side of that line an event falls on often varies depending on your perspective. In today's digital world, some see the progression from activist to "hacktivist" as a natural one.

"It's pretty easy to imagine past activist heroes might well have engaged in some type of hacktivism depending if they'd had access to the technology," said John Kindervag, a security expert and principal analyst at Forrester, a research company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kindervag also wonders if defacing a website or bringing down an ecommerce portal, like the 2011 disruption of Sony's PlayStation Network, an online video game platform, is actually terrifying or merely inconvenient. "For me, the issue is if individual lives are in jeopardy at the moment of the action," said Kindervag. "Disrupting the air-traffic control system to make planes crash would definitely be cyberterrorism. …

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