[ISN] ANALYSIS: Warnings about cyber-terrorism are overblown

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Thu Mar 06 2003 - 03:06:45 PST

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    By LISA HOFFMAN, Scripps Howard News Service
    (March 5, 2003 8:22 p.m. EST) - In Malaysia, an anti-war hacker has
    vowed to unleash a voracious computer virus if America launches an
    attack on Iraq.
    A hacking group calling itself the Iron Guards is threatening "suicide
    cyber-attacks" if war occurs.
    And the pro-Islamic, underground cyber-outfit USG, which in September
    hacked three computer systems hosted by AOL Time Warner, has already
    defaced Web sites with messages criticizing an Iraq invasion.
    These and other cyber-threats have spurred some computer security
    experts to fret that war with Iraq could spawn waves of retaliatory
    hacking against the U.S. government and businesses.
    "As the imminent U.S. ... action on Iraq gains momentum, we are
    expecting more attacks of a similar nature," D.K. Matai, chief
    executive of the London computer security firm mi2g, said recently.
    Also apparently worried is the FBI.
    Last week, the bureau's National Infrastructure Protection Center
    issued a warning about an outbreak of "illegal cyber-activity" due to
    "increasing tensions between the United States and Iraq." The advisory
    said computer users and operators should be on guard against Iraq
    sympathizers, anti-war activists and even criminals using the cover of
    the Iraq crisis to "further personal goals."
    But while some e-sabotage may spark across the Internet, a look at
    similar predictions of cyber-terrorism shows that whatever hacking has
    occurred in past times of international crisis has essentially
    amounted to minor disruptions of fleeting consequence.
    For instance, after both the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the start of
    the U.S. assault on al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the FBI predicted a surge
    in cyber-hacking and -protests by anti-American partisans. Not only
    did that not happen, but the level of everyday attacks actually
    declined in some areas since the U.S. war on terrorism began.
    The attacks that did materialize were insignificant. A Pakistani
    hacking group defaced a Web site operated by the Pentagon's Defense
    Test & Evaluation Service with a message about Islam and the threat to
    attack 1,500 more sites.
    But the obscure and unclassified Pentagon training site was
    immediately fixed and the suspected hackers were quickly caught and
    turned in to the FBI. In another case, an e-mail "worm" bearing
    messages about al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was launched but did
    scant and easily repairable damage.
    Similarly, during the war over Kosovo in 1999, U.S. government
    Internet sites came under a barrage of cyber-attacks as partisans
    angry about America's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in
    Yugoslavia vented their rage electronically. But neither classified
    nor even sensitive sites were breached, although the White House's
    public Web site was attacked and the National Park Service's home page
    was temporarily knocked asunder.
    In fact, a growing number of computer security experts are downplaying
    the threat of cyber-war and -terrorism and speaking out against what
    they consider the undue hype surrounding both issues.
    "While there is much fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with the
    term, I posit that cyber-terrorism is really nothing more than a paper
    tiger," said Richard Forno, author of a book on information warfare
    and former chief security officer at Network Solutions, a computer
    services company.
    While acknowledging that a paralyzing or even seriously injurious
    cyber-attack against U.S. computers could occur, these experts count
    the odds as remote, and growing more so all the time.
    That is partly because of substantial strides being made in security
    defenses to protect the most important U.S. government and private
    industry computer operations. It also stems from the fact that many
    U.S. adversaries aren't particularly computer-savvy. Iraq, for
    instance, has shown interest in developing an "information warfare"  
    capacity, but is believed to have invested little time or manpower in
    the complex task.
    Georgetown University professor Dorothy Denning, considered in the top
    tier of cyber-security analysts, and other experts point to a recent
    U.S. Naval War College war game called "Digital Pearl Harbor," in
    which a sweeping attack on America's computer networks was simulated.  
    But the gamers determined that, to cause serious damage, assailants
    would need $200 million, an array of sensitive intelligence and five
    years of preparation time.
    In effect, these experts contend, the cyber-attacks so far have been
    the computer equivalent of spray-painted graffiti on a front door.
    Author Forno says terrorists are not dumb - they are looking for the
    biggest bang for their buck. A darkened computer screen or briefly
    disabled electrical grid pales in contrast to the horrifying
    destruction wrought in the Sept. 11 attacks.
    "Bin Laden, (Saddam Hussein) or any other terrorist is not going to
    snicker and proclaim a victory over the Great Satan simply because his
    geek corps manages to crash the NASDAQ trading system," Forno recently
    wrote. "Would you remember exactly where your were and what you were
    doing if a cyber-terrorist temporarily disrupted the NASDAQ Web site?  
    Probably not.
    "Will you remember where you were when the second hijacked 767 rammed
    into the World Trade Center? Most certainly."
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