Cyberterrorism

(Note to the reader: Although this article was first published in 1996, the message still seems relevant today.)

We live in a complex, chaotic, wonderful and terrifying epoch. Our times are marked by both a troubling separateness from each other and new opportunities for unification on an unprecedented scale. Regardless of our location, heritage or allegiances, we are fast becoming inseparable parts of a global techno-community that is silently growing up around us. In many ways, we are charter members of a uniquely affiliated civilization that is teetering on the threshold of a new millennium. Today, we find ourselves with one foot firmly planted in the physical world and the other dangling in cyberspace, that strange universe first introduced by novelist William Gibson in his book Neuromancer and now loosely defined as the virtual world inhabited by anyone who uses an electronic device to communicate with another human being. Put more simply, most of us who live in an industrialized society also live in this virtual world. Today, we exist simultaneously in two spheres, the physical world and the world of cyberspace. For better or worse, most of us could not survive without one foot in each.

In the traditional, physical world, we have a relatively well-developed understanding of each other and our surroundings. The physical world offers us a familiar landscape and provides us with a sense of history and continuity. In the physical world, we each possess a collection of survival skills that has been well honed through many generations and upon which we routinely rely to adapt to our surroundings. Although we sometimes seem to have little control over events in the physical world, there is much about life on this planet that we understand, and much that we use to our advantage. However, in the virtual world of cyberspace, we have far less experience and influence. In this universe the landscape is routinely unfamiliar and our skills are often not what they should be in order to ensure our comfort or safety. In cyberspace, our usual understanding of circumstances and events is clouded, uncertain, and unclear because cyberspace itself is elaborate, boundless, and rapidly evolving. In the virtual world, much of the terrain we encounter is puzzling, difficult to comprehend, and even potentially dangerous. Yet, despite our uncertainty and lack of experience, we move easily through this virtual world, affecting it and in turn being effected by it in ways that are subtle and often unrecognized. It is in the nature of this period in our history that the physical and virtual worlds have come together in a way that redefines our civilization and touches each of us each day. It is a defining characteristic of this epoch.

In cyberspace, the rules of living, prospering, and surviving are often peculiar and confusing, even tough much of this world has been given a façade of reassuring familiarity. In truth, we are foreign travelers in a landscape that is compelling, vast, and fraught with both opportunities and peril. Each day, we spend more and more of our time in this shapeless world, although in many cases we do not even recognize the near instantaneous transition from our physical reality because the boundary between these spheres is so elusive and delicate. For most of us, the act of moving between the physical world and the universe of cyberspace has become routine and inconsequential. It is something we do many times each day and we give its meaning little or no thought.

When we watch television, use a radio, talk on the telephone, or communicate with others using our personal computers, we are moving through cyberspace. We trade securities, make household purchases, chat, and contact friends and coworkers through a vast network of computers that exist in a virtual dimension which has no boundaries and whose absolute size is unknown. The delivery of electricity to our homes and offices, the flow of water to our towns and cities, the words and images upon which we rely for daily information, and most forms of mass transportation are all dependent on the workings of a virtual world that has become pervasive in our lives. Even when we make war, we do so with weapons that rely on the machinations of cyberspace to wreak their destruction in the physical world. Today, without the existence of this ethereal and powerful universe, we would be cut off from most of society and the rest of our planet. For good or bad, we must live in two worlds, and we must learn to survive and prosper in each.

Although our physical world has obvious limitations, cyberspace seems to be infinite in its possibilities and undefined in regard to its future impact in our lives. Our physical world has obvious dimension. It can be touched, nurtured, appreciated, and even destroyed. On the other hand, the world of cyberspace is ethereal, insensitive, pervasive, and potent. Whether or not it can be destroyed is debatable. That it is essential to our survival cannot be disputed.

We have already learned that cyberspace can be a place of renewal and learning. Its short history emanates from a tradition of openness and meaningful communication. However, we are now beginning to realize that it can also become the secret nursery of widespread chaos and destruction. Its ultimate uses and limitations have only been somewhat explored, and there is much that lies beyond the horizon. It is this new, invisible frontier that both beckons us and warns us of the uncertainties of its impact and meaning in the years ahead.

We have already tested most of the limits of our physical world and stretched many of its resources beyond the breaking point. However, we are only now beginning to appreciate the possibilities of cyberspace, a world without boundaries, leaders, well-defines rules, or even a consensus for acceptable behavior. This is a truly strange and unsettling period in our planet’s history; it offers unimaginable opportunity and unanticipated danger in both worlds.

The late twentieth century spawned an era of intense domestic and international terrorism that left few industrialized nations unaffected. Since the era of the Cold War, terrorism has become commonplace in our world, and its effects have radically changed the policies of nations and the lives of countless citizens. However, despite its horrendous impact and cruelty, terrorism is generally understood. The methods and motives of its perpetrators are typically recognizable. Traditional terrorism is a physical act that occurs in the physical world, within battlefields that are familiar and approachable. However, terrorism in the new millennium will be much different. It will likely be even more frightening and destructive than anything we have yet experienced. The most dangerous terrorists of the new millennium will not use explosives, take hostages, or directly threaten society with chemical or biological genocide. They will use cyberspace to accomplish their goals. They will attack our infrastructure, disrupt our communications, create chaos in our financial markets, attempt to annihilate our transportation or weapons systems, and hold us hostage from within the sanctuary of a virtual world that can assure their anonymity and make their apprehension extraordinarily difficult or impossible.

The feared terrorist of today will be replaced by the cyberterrorist of the new millennium. He will move among us quietly until he is ready to strike. By the nature of the new battlefield of cyberspace, we will be left with little option but to respond defensively and, in many cases, only after the hand of the perpetrator has been felt. Bleak as it is, this is a scenario that many believe is inevitable in the new century. Sadly, it seems to be inherent in the nature of our changing world.

However, there are possible answers to this danger. There are countermeasures at our disposal and ways of answering this new threat to our security. Even on a virtual battlefield, terrorism is a uniquely human act. Like the traditional terrorists of the late twentieth century, the cyberterrorists of tomorrow will carry with them the motivations and agendas that are already well known to society. Their methods will be unfamiliar and frightening, and their acts of violence will be spawned from the etheric world of cyberspace, but they will remain human terrorists. In this sense, they can be known and understood. It is even possible that they can be identified before they strike. There are options to the seeming inevitability of cyberterrorism. However, in order to seize these options, we must know the virtual world as well as our adversaries have come to know it. We must become comfortable with the potential battlefields of the new millennium and willing to travel their foreign byways as comfortably as our adversaries now do.

In the physical world, terrorists rarely work alone. They are dependent on co-conspirators, supporters, supply lines, financing, family, and friends. Terrorists work their violence against a backdrop of intent and in accordance with an agenda in which they believe. Despite its horrific nature, terrorism is rarely a spontaneous act, undertaken without clear motivation. In this sense, the terrorist of today can be at least somewhat understood. His or her actions can sometimes be predicted by such tactics as intelligence operations and information gathering. The development of astonishing spycraft techniques since the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War has proven that even the deepest secrets of a terrorist can be penetrated, and the darkest plots laid bare.

The cyberterrorist of tomorrow will also be vulnerable to these kinds of defensive tactics, as well as a host of new cyberspace defense weapons. He will not be able to act with full impunity if we are prepared to meet him head on with the same techniques that he has already mastered. However, for now, he has the upper hand. The world of cyberspace is his comfortable domain, not ours. It is a potential battlefield with which he is intimately familiar. For most of us, this virtual world remains strangely distant and exotic. We have some catching up to do.

In the end, the world of cyberspace itself cannot be conquered by any individual or nation. It is simply too complex, too ill-defined, and too vast to be dominated. However, it can be understood, its resources can be used, and those who would make cyberspace their launching platform for international chaos can be controlled. At its core, cyberspace is a community that is populated with real individuals whose lives are intimately connected to its workings. We can reach into this virtual world and begin to comprehend its meaning, promise, and potential for danger, if we focus on those who inhabit it.

Ironically, when we look into the seemingly incomprehensible abyss of cyberspace, the first face we recognize is often our own. That should give us reason for optimism about the future. The cyberterrorist of tomorrow is, like us, quite human.

 

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