Terror attacks have traditionally targeted concentrations of bystanders. But what if they didn’t need to in order to wreak havoc on a massive scale?
Critical infrastructure networks maintained by governments around the world could be vulnerable to major cyberattacks at any moment.
But what do we really know about cyber terrorism?
Luke Dembosky, former deputy assistant attorney-general for national security at the US Department of Justice, tracks developments in cyber terror.
He said the question had shifted from how to prevent major attacks point black, to how best to minimise their enormous damage.
What is cyberterrorism?
The FBI in the United States defines cyberterrorism as a “premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs and data which results in violence against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”.
Critically, cyberterrorist attacks are not the same as hacking or compromising consumer data, as what happened in the recent Equifax data breach.
They instead aim to cause global panic or mass loss of life by hacking into critical infrastructure like power networks, trading platforms and healthcare systems.
As we saw with the WannaCry ransomware attack earlier this year, many hospital systems were vulnerable to widespread disruption.
“This is not the same as the loss of your credit card data in a breach even as large as the Target breach that we had a few years ago in the US,” Mr Dembosky said.
“This is about life and death, and when it comes to providing medical care or not, or being able to access patient records, keeping the power grid on, the trading platform going, it becomes a much larger risk area.”
Where are the threats coming from?
Increasingly, over the past few years, we’ve seen rogue states like North Korea engage in destructive cyber attacks, like the one on Sony in 2014.
“A number of people think that North Korea built their attack on Sony through the attack on the Swift banking system,” Mr Dembosky said.
“There is evidence of states like Iran getting into the controls of the dam system in Rye, New York, which thankfully was disconnected for maintenance purposes.”
But Mr Dembosky said while terror organisations like Islamic State are unlikely to abandon attacks on civilians by traditional means, they will inevitably expand their arsenal into cyberspace.
“[In cyberspace] they don’t need to sneak in, they don’t need to funnel weapons into a country if they can reach in through cyber means and sow destruction and mayhem,” he said.
“And I think they’re well on their way to doing that.”
Is a cyberterrorist attack inevitable?
Major economies and governments around the world are currently in a race to “lock down” critical infrastructure from destructive cyber attacks.
Nations are faced with the near unavoidability of such attacks, and instead trying to find ways to minimise their spread or “cascading effect” across an entire sector of the economy.
“Whether we will be successful is uncertain, but I suspect that there’s going to be a successful attack on a major scale, and it will cause us to double our efforts and get better, just as it has in the physical terrorism world,” Mr Dembosky said.
In response to this threat, some countries are doing better than others, with efforts by law enforcement agencies “quite spotty” in some places.
“People are at different stages of risk and different stages of capability to do something about those risks, so it’s been really important to turn up the intensity on a global dialogue,” Mr Dembosky said.
“We had the same thing following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. There was a tremendous effort to try and make the world a smaller place for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.
“We need to have the same intensity, and the same international approach to cyber attacks.”