Guest columnCyberterrorism - The weapon of choice a decade after 9/11

By Scott Schober

Published 2 November 2011

Scott Schober, the president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems, warns of the growing threat from cyberterrorists; he writes that in ten years, “the terrorists’ weapon of choice may not necessarily be a 187,000 pound 767 jet loaded with fuel targeting” New York’s skyline, instead it will be pajama-clad hackers taking down an electrical grid, causing mass confusion in the aviation system, or targeting a nuclear power plant’s SCADA control system to create mass panic and chaos for millions

We lock our doors at night, set our alarms, and sleep in relative security throughout America. Yet, in the back of our minds we realize the world has changed in the past ten years. The anniversary of 9/11 is on everyone’s mind with the looming thought of what if some radical terrorist is looking to cause havoc. Ten years later, the terrorists’ weapon of choice may not necessarily be a 187,000 pound 767 jet loaded with fuel targeting New York City’s 110 story iconic structures that fell, taking 2,753 innocent lives with it. Today’s digital terrorist is sitting in his pajamas armed with a keyboard, mouse, and a computer that is anonymously connected into the world of the Internet. Oftentimes their target is not a specific person but rather an attack causing large scale disruptions that potentially affect millions of innocent computer users.

Cyberterrorism takes on several forms, but ultimately is a means of deliberately attacking or threatening targets by means of utilizing the internet as a common conduit which our computers and smart phones are intimately connected. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has specifically charged United States Strategic Command (USSC) with the duty to combat the growing threat of cyberterrorism. Ultimately, to thwart this growing problem each individual computer user can take precautions.

In the past ten years more people have become dependent upon their wireless smart phone as their primary means of communications via email, text, or voice.  With more than 5.3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide making up 77 percent of the world’s population, that is a tremendous opportunity for unsavory individuals to direct their attacks. In 2011 over 85 percent of new handsets will have direct access to the mobile Web.

Oftentimes people feel the computer is the ultimate target of cyberterrorism, yet at the end of the day it may innocently be the housewife paying bills online, or the husband accessing his brokerage account.  Far worse if the cyberterrorist has his/her sights set on taking the power grid down, causing mass confusion to the aviation industry, or monkeying around with a nuclear power plant’s SCADA control systems.  When major infrastructure is targeted, it can change the world as we know it overnight. Computers and our mobile phones are vulnerable to cyberterrorists, but effectively utilizing and securing this technology can at the same time be the most effective defense against terrorism.

Reflecting back over the past ten years, many doubt as they peer up into the New York City skyline that the new World Trade Center will not be taken down by radical terrorists in a jet. However, with the cyberterrorist’s new weapon of choice they may opt to focus their efforts on the delicate infrastructure controlled by the vast interconnection of computers around the globe. These powerful computers are getting faster and smarter, but so are the armchair cyberterrorists of tomorrow. 

Scott Schober is president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems, Inc.