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Cyberterrorism is a phrase used to describe the use of Internet based attacks in terrorist activities, including acts of deliberate, large-scale disruption of computer networks, especially of personal computers attached to the Internet, by the means of tools such as computer viruses.

Cyberterrorism is a controversial term. Some authors choose a very narrow definition, relating to deployments, by known terrorist organizations, of disruption attacks against information systems for the primary purpose of creating alarm and panic. By this narrow definition, it is difficult to identify any instances of cyberterrorism.

Cyberterrorism can also be defined much more generally as any computer crime targeting computer networks without necessarily affecting real world infrastructure, property, or lives.

There is much concern from government and media sources about potential damages that could be caused by cyberterrorism, and this has prompted official responses from government agencies.

Several minor incidents of cyberterrorism have been documented.


There is debate over the basic definition of the scope of cyberterrorism. There is variation in qualification by motivation, targets, methods, and centrality of computer use in the act. Depending on context, cyberterrorism may overlap considerably with cybercrime or ordinary terrorism.[1]

Narrow definition

If cyberterrorism is treated similarly to traditional terrorism, then it only includes attacks that threaten property or lives, and can be defined as the leveraging of a target's computers and information, particularly via the Internet, to cause physical, real-world harm or severe disruption of infrastructure.

There are some[who?] who say that cyberterrorism does not exist and is really a matter of hacking or information warfare. They disagree with labeling it terrorism because of the unlikelihood of the creation of fear, significant physical harm, or death in a population using electronic means, considering current attack and protective technologies.

If a strict definition is assumed, then there have been no or almost no identifiable incidents of cyberterrorism, although there has been much public concern.

Broad definition

Cyberterrorism is defined by the Technolytics Institute as "The premeditated use of disruptive activities, or the threat thereof, against computers and/or networks, with the intention to cause harm or further social, ideological, religious, political or similar objectives. Or to intimidate any person in furtherance of such objectives." [2] The term was coined by Barry C. Collin.[3]

The National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization of legislators created to help policymakers issues such as economy and homeland security defines cyberterrorism as:

[T]he use of information technology by terrorist groups and individuals to further their agenda. This can include use of information technology to organize and execute attacks against networks, computer systems and telecommunications infrastructures, or for exchanging information or making threats electronically. Examples are hacking into computer systems, introducing viruses to vulnerable networks, web site defacing, Denial-of-service attacks, or terroristic threats made via electronic communication.[4]

For the use of the Internet by terrorist groups for organization, see Internet and terrorism.

Cyberterrorism can also include attacks on Internet business, but when this is done for economic motivations rather than ideological, it is typically regarded as cybercrime.

As shown above, there are multiple definitions of cyber terrorism and most are overly broad. There is controversy concerning overuse of the term and hyperbole in the media and by security vendors trying to sell "solutions".[5]


As the Internet becomes more pervasive in all areas of human endeavor, individuals or groups can use the anonymity afforded by cyberspace to threaten citizens, specific groups (i.e. with membership based on ethnicity or belief), communities and entire countries, without the inherent threat of capture, injury, or death to the attacker that being physically present would bring.

As the Internet continues to expand, and computer systems continue to be assigned more responsibility while becoming more and more complex and interdependent. Sabotage or terrorism via cyberspace may become a more serious threat and is possibly one of the top 10 events to "end the human race".[6]


Public interest in cyberterrorism began in the late 1980s. As 2000 approached, the fear and uncertainty about the millennium bug heightened and interest in potential cyberterrorist attacks also increased. However, although the millennium bug was by no means a terrorist attack or plot against the world or the United States, it did act as a catalyst in sparking the fears of a possibly large-scale devastating cyber-attack. Commentators noted that many of the facts of such incidents seemed to change, often with exaggerated media reports.

The high profile terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 and the ensuing War on Terror by the US led to further media coverage of the potential threats of cyberterrorism in the years following. Mainstream media coverage often discusses the possibility of a large attack making use of computer networks to sabotage critical infrastructures with the aim of putting human lives in jeopardy or causing disruption on a national scale either directly or by disruption of the national economy.

Authors such as Winn Schwartau and John Arquilla are reported to have had considerable financial success selling books which described what were purported to be plausible scenarios of mayhem caused by cyberterrorism. Many critics claim that these books were unrealistic in their assessments of whether the attacks described (such as nuclear meltdowns and chemical plant explosions) were possible. A common thread throughout what critics perceive as cyberterror-hype is that of non-falsifiability; that is, when the predicted disasters fail to occur, it only goes to show how lucky we've been so far, rather than impugning the theory.

US military response

The US Department of Defense (DoD) charged the United States Strategic Command with the duty of combating cyberterrorism. This is accomplished through the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations, which is the operational component supporting USSTRATCOM in defense of the DoD's Global Information Grid. This is done by integrating GNO capabilities into the operations of all DoD computers, networks, and systems used by DoD combatant commands, services and agencies.

On November 2, 2006, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the creation of the Air Force's newest MAJCOM, the Air Force Cyber Command, which would be tasked to monitor and defend American interest in cyberspace. The plan was however replaced by the creation of Twenty-Fourth Air Force which became active in August 2009 and would be a component of the planned United States Cyber Command.

On December 22, 2009, the White House named its head of Cyber Security as Howard Schmidt. He will coordinate U.S Government, military and intelligence efforts to repel hackers.



Mostly non-political acts of sabotage have caused financial and other damage, as in a case where a disgruntled employee caused the release of untreated sewage into water in Maroochy Shire, Australia.[7]

More recently, in May 2007 Estonia was subjected to a mass cyber-attack in the wake of the removal of a Russian World War II war memorial from downtown Tallinn. The attack was a distributed denial-of-service attack in which selected sites were bombarded with traffic to force them offline; nearly all Estonian government ministry networks as well as two major Estonian bank networks were knocked offline; in addition, the political party website of Estonia's current Prime Minister Andrus Ansip featured a counterfeit letter of apology from Ansip for removing the memorial statue. Despite speculation that the attack had been coordinated by the Russian government, Estonia's defense minister admitted he had no conclusive evidence linking cyber attacks to Russian authorities. Russia called accusations of its involvement "unfounded," and neither NATO nor European Commission experts were able to find any conclusive proof of official Russian government participation.[8] In January 2008 a man from Estonia was convicted for launching the attacks against the Estonian Reform Party website and fined.[9][10]

Website defacement and denial of service

File:Defaced Air Botswana Website.JPG

The website of Air Botswana, defaced by a group calling themselves the "Pakistan Cyber Army".

Even more recently, in October 2007, the website of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko was attacked by hackers. A radical Russian nationalist youth group, the Eurasian Youth Movement, claimed responsibility.[11]

In 1999 hackers attacked NATO computers. The computers flooded them with email and hit them with a denial of service (DoS). The hackers were protesting against the NATO bombings in Kosovo. Businesses, public organizations and academic institutions were bombarded with highly politicized emails containing viruses from other European countries.[12]


Since the world of computers is ever-growing and still largely unexplored, countries with young Internet cultures produce young computer scientists usually interested in "having fun". Countries like China, Pakistan, Greece, India, Israel, and South Korea have all been in the spotlight before by the U.S. Media for attacks on information systems related to the CIA and NSA. Though these attacks are usually the result of curious young computer programmers, the United States has concerns about national security when such critical information systems fall under attack. In the past five years, the United States has taken a larger interest in protecting its critical information systems. It has issued contracts for high-leveled research in electronic security to nations such as Greece and Israel, to help protect against more serious and dangerous attacks.[citation needed]

In fiction

  • The Japanese cyberpunk manga, Ghost in the Shell (as well as its popular movie and TV adaptations) centers around an anti-cyberterrorism and cybercrime unit. In its mid-21st century Japan setting such attacks are made all the more threatening by an even more widespread use of technology including cybernetic enhancements to the human body allowing people themselves to be direct targets of cyberterrorist attacks.
  • Dan Brown's Digital Fortress.
  • Amy Eastlake's Private Lies.
  • In the movie Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) takes on a group of cyberterrorists intent on shutting down the entire computer network of the United States.
  • The movie Eagle Eye involves a super computer controlling everything electrical and networked to accomplish the goal.
  • The plots of 24 Day 4 and now Day 7 include plans to breach the nation's nuclear plant grid and then to seize control of the entire critical infrastructure protocol.
  • The Tom Clancy created series Netforce was about a FBI/Military team dedicated to combating cyberterrorists.
  • Much of the plot of Mega Man Battle Network is centered around cyberterrorism.
  • In the 2009 Japanese animated film Summer Wars, an artificial intelligence cyber-terrorist attempts to take control over the world's missiles in order to "win" against the main characters that attempted to keep it from manipulating the world's electronic devices.

See also


  1. What is cyberterrorism? Even experts can't agree. Harvard Law Record. Victoria Baranetsky. November 5, 2009.
  3. Afroz, Soobia (June 16, 2002). "Cyber terrorism — fact or fiction?". Dawn. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
  4. Cyberterrorism National Conference of State Legislatures.
  5. Anderson, Kent (October 13, 2010). "Virtual Hostage: Cyber terrorism and politically motivated computer crime". The Prague Post. Retrieved 2010-10-14.
  6. "Top 10 events that may end the human race". Yahoo News. Wed Oct 27, 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-01.
  7. Hacker jailed for reverse sewage. The Register. October 31, 2001.
  8. Estonia has no evidence of Kremlin involvement in cyber attacks
  9. "Estonia fines man for 'cyber war'". BBC. 2008-01-25. Retrieved 2008-02-23.
  10. Leyden, John (2008-01-24). "Estonia fines man for DDoS attacks". The Register. Retrieved 2008-02-22
  11. Russian nationalists claim responsibility for attack on Yushchenko's Web site International Herald Tribune
  12. "Hackers attack U.S. government Web sites in protest of Chinese embassy bombing". CNN. Retrieved 2010-04-30.

Further reading

External links



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