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Cyberterrorism: Latest Threat to National Computer Security?

Threat Is Real, but Often Exaggerated

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Cyberterrorism: Invading Cyberspace and Networks as a Form of Terrorist Attack

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 produced several interrelated fears about the role that the Internet and networked computers might play in a terrorist attack. First, the government and the private sector worried that information housed on computers might be vulnerable. Those who seek to threaten American national security could do so if they obtained weapons system information or substantial financial information from banks.

A second, related concern, was that the networks over which this information is transmitted could be compromised. Their compromise would of course give the criminally-minded among us access to information, as well as the opportunity to influence or manipulate its flow.

Defining cyberterrorism has been a challenge. Cyberterrorism is not necessarily designed to cause a terrifying visual spectacle that can be exploited for propaganda purposes, as conventional terrorism is. Defining cyberterrorism as broadly as possible serves those who want to expand control over cyberspace. Even though only a small amount of cybercrime could actually be designated terrorism, the term 'cyberterrorism' creates a subliminal linkage in listener's minds to groups such as Al Qaeda and other global jihadists. The government and private industry can in turn use fears about Al Qaeda to create support for tighter controls on electronic information.

Cyberterrorism, Is it a Threat?

A number of experts conclude that while the threat of cyberterrorism does exist, it is routinely exaggerated by various actors for political, or financial gain). As they note, the United States (and indeed, much of the rest of the world) is profoundly dependent on computer networks for its daily well functioning. It is important to safeguard critical infrastructure from vulnerability to attack.

At the same time, maintaining a state of anxiety over that vulnerability can be profitable. As Gabriel Weimann pointed out in Cyberterrorism: How Real is the Threat? " …an entire industry has emerged to grapple with the threat of cyberterrorism … private companies have hastily deployed security consultants and software designed to protect public and private targets … the federal government requested $4.5 billion for infrastructure security [following 9/11], and the FBI now boasts more than one thousand "cyber investigators."

U.S. National Computer Security Efforts

The Patriot Act Addresses cyberterrorism: The Bush Administration has offered to counter the threat of cyberterrorism by expanding the punishments for those committing cybercrimes, and pushing for Internet Service Providers to disclose information to the government for investigations. Both of these provisions appear in the US Patriot Act (the 2001 Act was updated in 2005). According to a White House press release, the act also usefully "allows Internet providers, without fear of being sued, to give information to law enforcement when it would help law enforcement prevent a threat of death or serious injury." However, a September, 2007 ruling by Manhattan federal judge Victor Marrero on the constitutionality of National Security Letters (NSLs) Challenges the Patriot Act provision.

The Patriot Act allowed the government to issue NSLs requesting customer information without legal approval to a company, and also put 'gag orders' on companies over their ability to disclose their receipt of these letters. Following an ACLU lawsuit brought on behalf of an Internet company (which remains anonymous), Judge Marrero ruled the gag order violates the first amendment right to free speech, and the lack of judicial oversight violates the fourth amendment prohibition of "unreasonable search and seizure."

New offices address cyberterrorism: The Department of Homeland Security houses a National Cyber Security Division which aims to build a national cyberspace response system, and to put into use a cyber-risk management program to protect critical infrastructure.

Additionally, the Air Force has established a provisional Cyber Command, which will coordinate with air and space operations to conduct wars in cyberspace.

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