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[infowar.de] Cyberterror gegen USA?
U.S. networks run big risk of cyber-strikes, experts assert
BY JIM PUZZANGHERA AND ELISE ACKERMAN
San Jose Mercury News
Monday, Oct. 1, 2001
U.S. networks run big risk of cyber-strikes, experts assert
WASHINGTON -- America's next Pearl Harbor, many experts predicted,
would be a cyber-attack, a high-tech strike on the nation's critical
computer systems, such as those controlling power grids or financial
When it happened Sept. 11, however, the next Pearl Harbor was much
like the first: a violent surprise attack from the skies that killed
thousands. Despite the theory that a cyber-attack could amplify the
chaos of a major terrorist strike -- such as disabling New York City's
911 system as the airliners hit the World Trade Center -- none appears
to have taken place.
But the complexity of the terrorists' scheme, as well as their
ability to identify and exploit vulnerability in airline security, makes
cyber-terrorism a potent and perhaps even more likely threat now,
leading cyber-security experts maintain.
``I think we've now seen for the first time a terrorist event . . .
where the perpetrators were very sophisticated and very innovative and
clearly had the resources and the intellectual ability to use complex
systems,'' said Jeffrey Hunker, who handled cyber-security issues for
the National Security Council from 1996 to 2000.
The nation's critical computer infrastructure remains highly
vulnerable to attacks, intelligence and cyber-security experts told
Congress last week.
In the wake of the terrorist strikes, the Bush administration
recently named Richard Clarke, who currently heads the government's
counterterrorism team, to focus on cyber-security efforts.
Clarke will work at the National Security Council under Tom Ridge,
the Pennsylvania governor who will be head of the newly created,
Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security. The White House also plans to
install retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, former chief of the U.S.
Special Operations Command, as coordinator of intelligence and military
resources in the anti-terror campaign.
The cyber-strikes that U.S. officials fear might not come from Osama
bin Laden's Al-Qaida network, which despite having used computer
technology in the past, seems
focused on dramatic attacks on physical symbols, experts said.
But cyber-attacks could be launched by computer-savvy people
sympathetic to his cause, other terrorist networks or nations such as
Iraq that support terrorism and are believed to be developing
``It's my understanding that they're not teaching this in the
terrorist-training camps,'' said Dorothy Denning, a computer-science
professor at Georgetown University who has studied cyber-terrorism.
``It's these thousands of affiliates or sympathizers . . . and some of
them may decide to take it upon themselves to see what they can do that
is more disruptive, if not destructive.''
Attacks by such sympathizers have taken place following other crises,
such as the downing of a U.S. spy plane by China earlier this year,
according to a study released by the Institute for Security Technology
Studies at Dartmouth College.
``Terrorists themselves are not highly likely to engage in
cyber-attacks right now because we haven't seen a lot of cyber-attacks
by terrorist groups,'' said Michael Vatis, the institute's director.
``But if, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. engages in
military strikes and retaliation against the terrorist infrastructure .
. . it is our view that terrorist attacks are likely to occur.''
Within days of the attacks, the FBI's National Infrastructure
Protection Center issued warnings about increased hacking of Web sites,
spreading of computer viruses and so-called ``distributed denial of
service'' attacks, which try to bring down a computer network by
flooding it with e-mail.
The ``Nimda'' computer worm, which flooded many e-mail servers and
personal computer hard drives with data, started spreading after the
attacks. But there is no evidence linking the worm to the attackers.
Much of the increased cyber activity has been what's known as
``hacktivism'' -- defacement of Web sites to make a political statement,
either in opposition or support of the terrorists.
Malicious hactivists in the past have downloaded potentially
sensitive information from India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center and
stolen credit-card numbers from a database belonging to the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby.
But cyber-attacks have been growing in scope and sophistication in
recent years. During the NATO air strikes in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999,
some NATO Web servers were
disabled after sustained attacks by hackers who NATO believes were
working for Serbia, according to the Dartmouth report.
The Internet itself could be jeopardized if simultaneous assaults
were to succeed in harming the 13 root servers that are the Web's
ultimate address book.
``Worms'' like the infamous Code Red and Nimda, which continue to
proliferate throughout corporate computer systems, could be slightly
altered to carry more damaging payloads.
``If maximum destruction is a hostile adversary's goal, worms are a
cost-effective way to significantly disrupt the United States' national
infrastructure,'' the Dartmouth report concludes.
The larger concern is an attack on computer systems used to control
important functions, such as electric power grids, nuclear power plants
``One of the most frightening images of cyber-terrorism is a scenario
in which terrorists take over the air-traffic control system to cause an
aircraft to crash or two planes to collide in flight,'' was the start of
a chapter in a book on international cyber-attacks published this year
by the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
Terrorists proved last month that they could accomplish a similar
goal without having to infiltrate computer systems. But their plan
required 19 people in a well-coordinated effort to hijack four
airplanes. For a cyber-attack, ``you need one guy and a laptop,'' said
Vatis, who also is the former director of the National Infrastructure
Tim Belcher, the chief technology officer for Riptech, a
Virginia-based information security firm, said many computer systems,
such as those controlling power grids and water supplies, are
surprisingly accessible through the Internet.
The U.S. military has an information-warfare strategy to disrupt such
systems in foreign countries, so it's logical that terrorist groups
would look to do the same, said Belcher, who worked on cyber-security
for the Defense Department. ``It's not like the typical battlefield
where the Army with more tanks wins,'' he said. ``This is technology.
This is something that anybody can embrace and become expert in.''
Stephen Northcutt, who runs an information warfare simulation for the
SANS Institute, a network security and research organization in
Bethesda, Md., said, ``You can potentially paralyze commerce, and you
might be able to accomplish a cascading failure of the electronic
In one Northcutt simulation, hostile hackers penetrate the computer
network of California's power grid operator. Northcutt notes that an
intruder is known to have roamed the network of the California
Independent System Operator for more than two weeks last spring.
Hunker, the former National Security Council staffer who now is dean
of the School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon
University, noted there are many ways to acquire such knowledge. In
fact, rudimentary hacking tools are available on thousands of Web sites
and network security is taught at institutes and conferences around the
Instead of going to flight school to learn how to fly an airliner, as
several of the Sept. 11 terrorists did, would-be cyber-terrorists could
enroll in intensive computer courses, Hunker said.
``They've demonstrated an ability to pull off sophisticated things
that take years of training,'' he said.
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