Is `Cyberterrorism' Real, or Paranoia?

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago, I said that "Police Beat" would occasionally investigate the question of "cyberterrorism" - that is, attacks by hackers on crucial systems such as the electrical grid or telephone networks - to see what is hype and what isn't.

We've all seen the stories. Malevolent teen-agers or Iraqi agents can hack into your clothes closet and make the buttons fall off.

They can destroy the banking system. They can bring the United States to its knees. They can put more chlorine in the water and your coffee will taste terrible.

A whole lot of this stuff is hype, gang.

A story told to me by a (bright and technically literate) paranoid acquaintance is that a terrorist could hack into the air-traffic control system and make airliners fly into each other.

Then, he said, you hack into the 911 emergency service, disable it, and medical care couldn't come to the rescue.

Pretty grim, huh?

Well, maybe.

But . . . think about it. Airplanes are flown by people called pilots, who do not like to run into each other. They are in the front part of the plane, which hits first. Even if you could get an air-traffic controller, by fiddling with the code running his screen, to tell a pilot to run into another, the pilot would probably decide to do something else.

Like bank right. Or climb. Or dive.

And you can't hack into a pilot. Too much ego. He'd overcome your computer, and fill it with pictures of his girlfriends.

Anyway, I called the Federal Aviation Administration, which does air-traffic control, and asked if some techies would talk about the problem.

Techies are unique in Washington in that they actually know what they are talking about. As far as computers are concerned, they are the only ones who know.

Anyway, they said that air-traffic control isn't connected to the Internet. The FAA uses everything from leased lines to, occasionally, satellites to connect its en-route centers (20 of them watch airliners on radar between airports) and several hundred terminal-radar-approach control centers (that, roughly, do takeoffs and landings).

But, in computerese, none of the equipment has a computer address, which means you couldn't get its attention if you did get on the air-traffic control net. …