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November 5, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 23
Page(s) 32 in print issue

The Rising Threat Of Cyberterrorism
Between Data Loss & Downtime, Cyberterrorism Can Be Devastating

Key Points

• Cyberterrorism is similar to conventional terrorism, only it’s directly focused on destroying technology infrastructure and/or disrupting its routine use.

• Existing security processes and strategies are effective in boosting organizational protection.

• Large-scale attacks are more widespread and difficult to stop with the consumer transition from dial-up to broadband.

If conventional terrorism is meant to cause panic, fear, or damage on a large enough scale to attract widespread attention, then cyberterrorism’s goals are similar. The only difference is that cyberterrorists focus on technological rather than physical infrastructure.

“Frankly, any semi-financed terrorism group could cause far worse damage by hiring out a Russian DoS/attack crew than they can for the same cash putting a car bomb in Times Square,” says Matt Jonkman, founder of Emerging Threats Pro ( “Also, far more individuals are affected in a cyber attack, if it is successful.”


In a corporate context, cyberterrorism includes attacks on network or data center infrastructure that could either be designed to steal data or interrupt the organization’s ability to function. Although the definition is relatively new, it’s not far removed from traditional threats to organizational security.

“Most companies frankly struggle to define with great clarity what their information security goals are,” says Craig Robinson, COO of GlobalSCAPE ( “I always come back to thinking of this as a risk management issue,” he continues. “Ask yourself: What are my critical assets, where might they be vulnerable, and what types of threats might be able to exploit those vulnerabilities? Look at them to define your areas of security focus.”

Phil Lieberman, advisor to the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and president and CEO of Lieberman Software (, says the threat of cyberterrorism has grown as high-speed network access has become ubiquitous and affordable. In an earlier dial-up world, attacks originated almost exclusively from within universities and research labs because they were the only ones that had high-speed connections. This also simplified identification and resolution.

Now that consumer access has transitioned from dial-up to broadband, the potential points of origin of large-scale attacks are infinitely more widespread and more difficult to track and stop, and botnets make a bad situation worse.

Whatever form it takes, Robinson cautions against hastily concluding that a particular act is cyberterrorism. “If somebody came and spray-painted the wall of your house, for example, I don’t think you’d say that’s an act of terrorism,” he says. “We’ll need to be careful to draw a pretty clear line between the types of things that are merely nuisances or cybervandalism and those that truly qualify as cyberterrorism.”


Lieberman says cyberterrorism continues to bubble below the surface, with no large-scale effort to quash it, because there hasn’t yet been a major, defining attack. “Everyone is waiting for the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” says Lieberman. “Until Pearl Harbor happens, it’s [difficult] to move forward with any form of legislation that might deal with it.”

Lieberman says the federal government is challenged to implement legislative guidelines without running afoul of e-privacy and civil liberties lobbyists. “Doing the right thing may not be practical because of the potential blowback,” he says.

But smart IT shops aren’t waiting for the government to act. They’re looking inward. “Our biggest enemy may not be terrorism,” Lieberman says. “It may be our own stupidity, from employees downloading viruses or losing unencrypted flash drives. Good organizations expect the worst, and they assume they’re under attack, every day.”


Keeping Cyberterrorists At Bay

According to Matt Jonkman, founder of Emerging Threats Pro (, existing security strategies are effective against cyberterrorism. These include:

• Antivirus, anti-malware, and antispyware software and hardware
• Regular third-party testing

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