Cyberterrorism, sometimes spelled "cyber terrorism," encompasses a range of malicious computer-based activity. Cyber terrorists specifically intend to break down information networks to access sensitive data and or illicitly modify existing frameworks to serve their own ends and spread fearfulness in a manner similar to physical terror attacks. Cyberterrorism is a multidimensional phenomenon to which computers and information networks are much more vulnerable than most people realize. The ever-evolving nature of technology, and the adaptability of hackers, requires dynamic efforts on several levels to recognize and effectively combat cyberterrorism in the information age.
Since the mid-1990s, the widening use of the Internet has made the world an increasingly smaller place. People the world over now experience unprecedented interconnectedness through email, instant messaging and social networks even though they may be physically separated by several thousand miles. One expert has pointed out that in the latter part of the first decade of the 2000s it was possible for someone at a cafe in any U.S. city to video conference with someone in Europe, check the balance of a bank account in Japan, play a game of chess with a friend in Canada, place domestic and offshore stock trades and write an email to the boss all at the same time from a notebook computer.
At a fundamental level, such activities are constructive. The Internet has allowed people to communicate, multitask and increase productivity as never before. As with any innovation, the Internet can also be used in a destructive or criminal way in the wrong hands. In other words, though they foster a global community, computers and the Internet may also be used as effectively for destructive and criminal ends. All anyone needs is a computer and a connection to the Internet.
Cyberterrorism can be best understood by its distinction from what has been termed "cyber-crime." Cyber-crime is a broad term that describes illegal activities using computers. Identity theft is a classic example of cyber-crime. Identity theft is the pilfering of personal data (for example credit card numbers and bank account details) by falsely assuming someone else's identity. This is often done using a stolen email or online banking password. Identity thieves can illicitly access other sensitive records simply by obtaining someone's social security number and date of birth.
A computer's ability to easily replicate data has created a vast market for the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted material including music and motion pictures. The Internet's overwhelming market for adult-oriented material has lent itself to the proliferation of illegal material such as child pornography. The use of secure servers and the possibility of virtual anonymity behind proxy server IP addresses can make such illegal activities remarkably simple, yet very difficult to prosecute. Cyber-crime crosses the line into cyberterrorism when conducted with the express intention of causing damage to and scaring others.
The deliberate alteration of data and destabilization of computers and networks represents cyberterrorism's end result. Cyberterrorism also includes efforts on the part of terrorists to spread destructive propaganda against governments or groups. Cyberterrorists issue threats and calls for attacks in a similar manner to produce fear before, or in place of, taking destructive action. Cyberterrorism may also occur in conjunction with bombings or other physical attacks.
The September 11 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. resulted in a paradigm shift in how Americans viewed their security. It became clear that America was not immune to attacks and that threats had to be taken seriously. The country became increasingly sensitive to any and all manner of terror threats. This meant that hacking and the spreading of computer viruses were no longer considered the pranks and nuisances of high school and college students. It became overwhelmingly clear that virtually anyone anywhere in the world with ill will toward the United States could instantaneously release a malicious computer code capable of compromising entire networks.
One expert has pointed out that the security of personal, organizational, and government networks in the United States cannot be approached from a single defense standpoint. The reason for this is that the Internet is accessible from anywhere, and there exist no virtual barriers that correspond to national borders. Moreover, just as physical terrorist threats may come from within the country, so can those of cyberterrorists. This further indicates the risk of sabotage and espionage by those with both direct and non-direct access to U.S. networks.
For these reasons, some experts insist, any U.S. government initiatives to combat cyberterrorism must be carried out on several levels. There must be a set of standards for securing networks and databases containing sensitive information. More to the point, such standards must be put in place by organizations and individuals as well as various levels of government. To this extent, combating cyberterrorism represents a democratic effort where all must take responsibility for recognizing and preventing cyberterror attacks.