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Digital Backlash to War?
Thursday 12th September 2002
The move towards military action against Iraq is raising the possibility
of an increase in electronic attacks by activists or hacking groups
sympathetic to Iraq or opposed to any military attack.
One such hacker, interviewed by e-mail for this article, warned that
Western governments and businesses should brace themselves for 'suicide
cyber attacks' in the event of a war against Iraq. He defined a 'suicide
cyber attack' as one in which the hacker sets out to cause maximum
damage unhindered by any regard for being detected and caught. The
hacker who issued this stark warning belongs to a group calling itself
the Iron Guards which has in the past attacked Israeli government and
business sites as part of the Arab-Israeli cyberwar.
Such talk may be no more than rhetorical swagger. Yet some indicators
already point to an escalation of digital attacks. mi2g, a London-based
company specialising in Internet security, has recorded August 2002 as
the worst month for overt digital attacks ever since its records began
in 1995. "It would seem highly likely that the launch of a physical
attack on Iraq will see counter-attacks from disgruntled Arab, Islamic
fundamentalist and anti-American groups," concludes DK Matai, Chairman
and CEO of mi2g.
Like a classic guerrilla struggle, digital warfare is a conflict of the
weak against the strong, in which the weaker force probes and attacks
the vulnerable points in its enemy's defences. The Achilles Heel of
modern technology appears to be that no computer system is totally
invulnerable to being 'cracked'. This has raised fears that hacking
might enable an individual or small group to wreak havoc in terms of
defacing or 'downing' government websites, spreading viruses and worms
that infect and disrupt computer systems, or even using the Internet as
a direct instrument of death by taking remote control of systems
operating dam floodgates or air traffic control.
The IT proficiency of militant Islamic hackers was recently raised by
American officials who admitted they have underestimated the amount of
attention al-Qaeda was paying to the Internet. "Al-Qaeda spent more time
mapping our vulnerabilities in cyberspace than we previously thought,"
said Roger Cressey, the chief of staff of the White House critical
infrastructure protection board, in a recent interview with the
Washington Post. "The question is a question of when, not if."
The National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre (NISCC), an
interdepartmental organisation created by the Home Secretary in 1999
with the task of protecting the UK's infrastructure from electronic
attack, says it is keeping this threat under constant review.
In a statement for this article, the NISCC said: "Although the UK is
increasingly vulnerable to electronic attacks, like other
technologically advanced societies, there is nothing to suggest that the
UK's critical national infrastructure, including government, is at risk
of widespread and disruptive electronic attack should the UK participate
in any possible military campaign against Iraq.
The NISCC added, however, that in the event of a war on Iraq, what it
called 'Islamic extremists' - or any other hacking groups - "may be
motivated to carry out less sophisticated attacks such as website
defacements or denial of service attacks." In other words, there may be
more digital attacks, but nothing to get overly-worried about at this
point in time.
The e-Envoy's office also says it is active vis-à-vis any cyber threat.
"The government has developed a set of Security Frameworks to provide a
common approach to security for e-government services, which the Office
of the e-Envoy is publishing," said a source from the e-Envoy's office.
"We believe that we are building adequate security measures into our
services, but no-one can afford to be complacent."
Some experts in the private sector feel that, in the present climate,
hysteria is as much a sin as complacency. "I think the media overplays
the hype associated with cyber terrorism," says Clifford May, chief
forensic consultant at Integralis, an IT security company in the UK.
"Large organisations may be an attractive target, but they have very
strong security in place."
The website Vmyths.com (www.vymths.com) has a self-declared goal of the
"eradication of computer virus hysteria". With acerbic wit, the industry
writers at Vmyths seek to expose what they feel lies behind the
hullabaloo about computer security: namely, media ignorance,
scare-mongering consultants and profit-seeking antivirus companies.
So will war on Iraq lead to an e-jihad against e-government? There may
possibly be more digital attacks, but the level of skill and efficacy of
such attacks remains unclear. Hackers - like the Al-Qaeda network - can
be dispersed, nebulous and elusive. Such a threat, because it is unseen,
creates uncertainty and where there is uncertainty there is room for
fear (and fear-mongering).
The response to cyber-threats from American and British officials may
appear different. American officials seem more ready to conceive (even
predict) the possibility of a devastating and catastrophic attack by
cyber terrorists. The White House advisor for cyberspace security
recently referred to the possibility of a 'digital Pearl Harbour'.
British cyber-officials, on the other hand, maintain a more reserved
tone. Hopefully, the difference between us and the Americans is one of
cultural expression, and not in any way one of professional diligence.
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