The threat of cyber terror is a concept that appears to be far more at home in sci-fi films than at the centre of national security strategies. And yet, if the Ministry of Defence, US President Barack Obama and the UK National Security Strategy (which in 2010 estimated that cyber terror costs $1trillion per year globally)are anything to go by, it seems that fiction is set to become a reality. According to counterterror experts at a London conference this month, cyber terror is becoming a very real threat to the UK. Their concerns echo those of Barack Obama, who in February announced that cyber security was to become a US government priority.

Since the explosion in technology over the past two decades, cyber terror has become something of a buzzword, entrenched either in scepticism or hyperbole. As a term, it is thrown around sporadically by journalists and pundits, who provide little explanation of what is meant by it. According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, there has rarely been something “so important” that is spoken about with “less apparent understanding” than the cyber terror phenomenon.

This is essentially down to the fact that cyber terror has become an umbrella term, and covers a wide range of actions. These can range from simples probes, denial of service attacks to full-blown espionage. In many instances, cyber terror simply is the use of computer networks to shut down critical national infrastructures, causing damage to civilians and governments alike. Cyber terror as a term seems to imply that it is the work of a few rogue hackers and electronic terrorists. Whilst the age of cyber terror unlike the nuclear era does give greater power to non-state actors, state-sponsored cyber attacks are considered to mark the new dawn in modern warfare.

The electronic onslaught on Estonia in 2007, which remains the biggest Denial of Service* (DOS) attack in history, is the most cited example of what is considered to be state-sponsored cyber terror. The online commotion that raged through Estonia saw the attack of over 85,000 computers over a three-week period, with the Estonia Reform Party’s website suffering prolonged defacement. Although it has never been confirmed, fingers pointed to Russia. The furore arose over Estonian authorities’ decision to move a Russian war memorial from the centre of Tallinn to the outskirts, which sparked stern criticism from Russia. One anonymous NATO official confirmed that the attacks “were not done by a few individuals” confirming that they “bore the hallmarks of something concerted”.

Russia is by no means the only state to focus its attention on the cyber world. In 2013, the Pentagon announced that it would boost the staff of its Cyber command unit from 900 to 4,900. In the UK, the Joint Cyber Reserve, formed last year under the watchful eye of the Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond, confirmed that it would strike into cyber space if necessary.

Yet, worryingly for many Western states, there clearly is a direct parallel between greater connectivity and vulnerability.

At the time of attack, Estonia was one of the best-connected countries in the world. Two-thirds of all Estonians used the Internet and over 95 percent of all bank transactions were done electronically. There is little doubt that the reverberations of the attack would have been much weaker in a technologically underdeveloped nation. Many forecasters have long argued that Russia and China have been strategically exploring the cyber alternative. Unable to match the financial and military superiority of the United States, they have, in essence, found its Achilles Heel.

Whilst this may seem to be hyperbole, last year the New York Stock Exchange dropped 143 points in three minutes, after the Associated Press’s website was hacked, sending out false information that Barack Obama had been injured following three explosions in the White House. Approximately $136billion was lost in equity market value. As the web of interconnectivity has spread across the developed world, it is little wonder that numerous bodies and agencies are expressing their concerns over potential cyber attacks.

Stuart Gulliver, Chief Executive of HSBC Bank, and other senior bank managers have affirmed that cyber attacks are the biggest direct threat to the industry. It is believed that every minute of the day a bank somewhere in the world is under cyber attack.

Considering that the largest known online theft in 2012 cost the banks somewhere between $78million and $2.5billion, their anxiety seems justified. Hence the Bank of England’s oversee of simulated cyber attacks on the nation’s banks, in an attempt to strive for financial security. For developed states, what is most worrying is the notion that these attacks may simply be skirmish examples, of more pertinent, aggressive future attacks, especially as states tactically gear towards the cyber alternative. With the provision of services, the economy, security and the government interlinked with the online world, the vulnerability of cyber space is a worrying concept.

Cyber terror, and the notion of cyber war, have both been known to raise eyebrows. As cyber attacks cannot be seen they often aren’t believed. However, there is little doubt that the strongest states are showing an element of increasing weakness as their structures and systems of government become more and more dependent on the increasingly murky and vulnerable cyber world.

 

*Denial of Service attack- When a hacker ensures that users of a network or a computer are unable to access legitimate information of services and information. 

 

REFERENCES

Rid, T, 2013, Cyber War will not take place, England: C Hurst & Co Publishers

Rid, T, 2013, Cyber War and Peace, Foreign Affairs

Lewis, J.A., Assessing the Risks of Cyberterrorism, Cyber War and other Cyber threats, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C.

Herzog, S, 2011, Revisiting the Estonian Cyber attacks: Digitial threats and multinational responses, Federation of American Scientists, Washington D.C.

Fisher, M, 2013, Syrian hackers claim AP hack that tipped stock market by $136billion. Is it terrorism, The Washington Post

New Cyber reserve unit created, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reserves-head-up-new-cyber-unit