The reality of cyber terror recently grabbed headlines not once, but twice. After a database of its customers’ information was hacked, online auction website Ebay had the embarrassing task of urging its 128million active users to change their passwords. In the world of politics, the United States managed to further cool down its frosty relationship with China by accusing it of cyber espionage.

Whilst Ebay are still looking into the perpetrators of the attack, which they believe to have occurred between late February and early March, for the first time ever, the US court publically named and shamed the five men it charged with cyber warfare. The charges seem to belong to a big budget science fiction film, whereas the old-fashioned “Wanted” poster the FBI issued for the five Chinese army officers could have been lifted from a Western.

This isn’t the first time cyber terror has blurred the line between fact and fiction. When Senator Byron Dorgan claimed that cyber terror was the new language of war, his words were jumping off the page of his fiction novel Gridlock into the sphere of reality. Gridlock’s story features the crippling of the US economy, after a Russian-created computer virus is used by Iran to bring down the electric power grid in the US. According to the former Senator, the digital dependence of the United States coupled with the vulnerability of the online world means that such scenarios, like the one in his novel, could well become reality.

Before Senator Dorgan is accused of hyperbole for the sake of self-promotion, in 2011, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also brought the seemingly farfetched into reality when it was advising airlines to “remain on guard” against cyber terrorism. The IATA referenced the situation in the film Die Hard 2, where an aircraft crash-lands after it’s tricked into thinking its flying 200 metres higher than it really is, and claimed that it is “no longer merely a fictional reality”. This is consistent with Jeff Kohler’s, vice president of the international business development for Boeing’s defence arm, admission that he is “very concerned” about the cyber threat to flying software.

Concerns such as these were sparked afresh by the recent US-China incident. And as the accusations towards China show, cyber attacks are no longer considered to be the work of a few rogue hackers, but belong to the hands of states.

Alongside China, fingers are often pointed towards the other usual suspects, those often painted as the “enemies of the West”, Russia and Iran. The Shamoon virus that infected 35,000 of Aramco’s, the Saudi oil companies’ computers, deleted their data and left them with a burning image of the American flag, was linked back to Iran.

The Chinese government did not react well to the accusations by the United States, immediately summoning the US ambassador. They also released an angry statement directed to Washington filled with counter-accusations.

The Chinese government have a point. The United States and their allies are no strangers to committing cyber attacks. The 2010 Stuxnet worm that was designed to wreak havoc at Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment plant is suspected to have come from the United States and (or) Israel. This year another virus, the Flame virus, intending to attack computers in Iran, Syria and the West Bank was linked back to the same source.

This doesn’t stop the great deal of lip service that comes out of the West regarding cyber security and safety. Numerous defence strategists on both sides of the Atlantic have voiced their concerns over the vulnerability of the digital world and the potential catastrophic consequences of a cyber attack.

In 2011, former CIA Director Leon Panetta went as far as to say that the “next Pearl Harbour” could be in cyber form. Panetta’s idea that a few clicks could cripple “our security systems, our financial systems, our government systems” is a fear that has been vocalised by MI5 agents, politicians and almost all of the large commercial banks.

Sceptics question the endless chatter that encircles the topic of cyber terror and accuse the CIA, alongside other defence agencies, of facilitating hype and creating a new “Bogeyman”.

However, for many the speculation and hype of cyber terror reflects the insecurity and growing vulnerability of the Western states. In countries where national infrastructure, and the provision of all public services, is dependent on technology, the threat of cyber attacks poses a very real danger.

Considering that there is pretty much a direct correlation between Western states and a dependence on technology, this hints towards a real shift in power balance. The “Mutually Assured Destruction” of the Cold War has ebbed away, as the nuclear threats are replaced by the cyber. It seems that the cyber world, grown out of and nurtured by the West, may well be the chink in its armour.

 

References:

http://www.economist.com/news/international/21567886-america-leading-way-developing-doctrines-cyber-warfare-other-countries-may

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/13/panetta-cyberattack-next-pearl-harbor_n_875889.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sen-byron-dorgan/cyber-terror-is-the-new-l_b_3612888.html

http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2014/May/14-ag-528.html