The scary thing about living in the cyber age is that a hacker in a Bombay hotel room can in theory cause a nuclear Armageddon through an Internet connection using US military nukes, ending life as we know it. No amount of military spending on anti-ballistic missiles or federal funding to increase FBI field agents can stop this threat since it's a digital threat and not a physical one. The only thing a nation can do is invest in cyber security, and make sure that their servers are protected with the best encryption software possible or are remotely stationed outside the Internet.
The interesting aspect about the Internet is that states don't necessarily control the Internet, individuals do, in the sense that the Internet empowers individuals disproportionately compared to their real, physical power. The Internet is the great equalizer because all individuals have equal access to the same information; the Harvard professor and the twelve-year old Mali teenager share the same database as long as they have an Internet connection to the World Wide Web. From the US military standpoint, it's somewhat easy for the Pentagon to see large troop movements or even rogue states accruing weapons of mass destruction via satellite communications, but how are you supposed to monitor every one of the 500 million internet users, where a few will be cyber terrorists whose sole intent is on destroying the US?
Cyber terrorism can be defined as, “…the premeditated politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which result in violence against noncombatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents” (Pollitt 2). The goal of terrorism is to frighten the targeted populace enough that they decide it's better to accede to the terrorists political demands rather than continue living in the current state of terror. But it's important to differentiate the cyber terrorist from the elite hacker: the cyber terrorist has a political agenda in mind and is willing to go to extremes to achieve his goal while an individual hacker is financially motivated or hacks for pure entertainment purposes.
There's just one problem with the argument that cyber terrorism is the largest national security threat of the 21st Century: it doesn't exist. There are no instances of anybody being killed or physically harmed by a terrorist (or anyone else) using a computer. “Nor is there any compelling evidence that Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization has resorted to computers for any sort of serious destructive activity. Outside of a Tom Clancy novel, computer security specialists believe it is virtually impossible to use the Internet to inflict death on a large scale, and many scoff at the notion that terrorist would bother trying” (Green 2). Thus the media and the military complex have created a myth about cyber terrorism to serve their own political and self-serving needs.
I'm not saying that cyber security isn't a serious problem that needs to be dealt with; criminals and hackers did over $15 billion in damage to the global economy last year via the Internet. And the figure is going to rise if we don't protect our vital computer systems and servers with better software and better encryption from these external attacks by digital criminals. It's just that terrorists would rather implement cheaper and more effective means to get their political message across, such as bombs and guns, and right now the damage that can be done through a computer is not as nearly as much as that which can be down with conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
The War on Terrorism has been the catchphrase for the United States government ever since the tragic events of September 11th, and cyber terrorism presents the opportunity to level the playing field for all participants, regardless of their size of military spending in this digital battlefield, thus presenting a major threat to US national security that represents over 50% of the world's spending on its military budget, where most of the budget is spent on conventional forces. So why are the general public, mass media, and even United States military complex worried about a cyber terrorist attack at the same level as they fret over nuclear or biological weapons falling into terrorist hands?
When it comes to cyber terrorism directed towards the United States, it is really US (the United States) vs. them (the terrorists.) Each actor has his/her own interests to fulfill and they see cyber terrorism as an important tool or hindrance in securing their interests.
The United States interests lie in protecting its citizens. Most importantly it wants to protect them from foreign threats such as terrorist attacks directed towards its infrastructure or towards individual citizens; the US government knows that if individuals start collectively worrying about their safety, then the NYSE will crash serving as a precursor to bad times in the overall US economy as consumer confidence falls. Just look at the stock market crash after September 11th: President Bush took the drastic measure to end trading for a couple days as to not cause overreaction among speculators which would have made the Black Tuesday in 1929 seem like a walk in the park. By ensuring national security, the US ensures that it remains number one in the world via GDP or relative power and influence.
Terrorists on the other hand want to terrorize the target populace in the most effective way possible. Groups such as Al-Qaeda feel that by instilling fear into the hearts of every American they can accomplish their goals of pushing Israel out of the Middle East, thwarting US cultural neo-colonialism abroad, and undermine the decadent US lifestyle by getting Americans off their high horse.
Cyber terrorism is considered a future to the United States and a breakthrough for terrorist groups. If terrorists could remotely terrorize the United States via an Internet connection, it would upset the balance of power between national security and terrorist spending as it would take a slew of US government officials and equipment to just stop one individual cyber terrorist hacker from hacking into the US infrastructure.
Thus as the interests among each actor in the realm of cyber terrorism may be different, the equipment remains more or less the same for both sides. Needed are computers, an Internet connection, and IT workers skilled in the field of network security, albeit hacking or counter-hacking. Cyber terrorism gives terrorists disproportionate influence in vying for their interests, upsetting the balance of power in the world between the US and the international community, and should therefore be taken seriously by the Pentagon and other national security experts in the US.
In the movie Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise had to break into a top-security room in the FBI headquarters to retrieve confidential data so that he could gain back his identity and clear his name from being a double agent. This involved dangling from a bungee cord, making no sound, and inserting a reminiscent 1.44 MB floppy disk into the computer and waiting endless seconds for the information to download. There were temperature sensors, noise sensors, laser alarms, and pressure sensors installed in the room. In the end, he hacked the complicated FBI security system and retrieved his identity back, but not without the help of some expensive electronic gadgets and a top-dollar hacker. The paramount requirement for Tom Cruise to hack into the government server is that he had to be physically in the room to get the data. There was no other way to access the computer rather than actually being at the specific computer terminal that held his identity.
There are concerns nowadays and in the future cyber terrorists will choose computer spies rather than the Tom Cruise type to obtain confidential government secrets stored on computers that are the digital brains of the United States. This would mean that there would not have to be no more secret agents inside the agency to blend in and steal its precious information, all you would need is a $4000 computer and a hacker technologically-savvy enough to go around the security of the system.
Thus, if hackers could access top-secret information from the safety of their computers, then the Internet would truly represent the free flow of ideas without restrictions. All nations who had elite hackers would also have information on how to make a nuclear bomb, where the B2 Stealth bomber launch port is located at, and the identities of all US secret agents overseas. Knowledge is power, and theoretically all nations would have the power to access this information. Groups who have cyber terrorist hackers would also have the power of knowledge, such as terrorist cells like Hamas and Al-Qaeda. They would have the technical diagrams to make almost any weapon of mass destruction that they wanted. Then the Internet would truly be the information equalizer empowering and providing to all nations and groups information that only rich research nations like the US and UK know currently.
But truth be told, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to remotely hack a government computer and steal sensitive information. This is because most government servers are air-gapped, meaning that they aren't connected in anyway to the World Wide Web. Internet users, even the most well funded technophiles out there, couldn't access information on these servers via remote connection, they would have to physically be at the computer terminal to acquire the information. And these computer terminals are in rooms protected by millions of dollars worth of security devices inside the FBI and CIA buildings or located in secret computer information infrastructure bunkers in the outskirts of Virginia and Maryland with very limited access authorization.
And for the few government servers that actually broadcast to a multitude of computers across the world via a network, like for example the DMV or IRS databases, these networks are secured and accessible only by government officials. Secondary Internets between the host server and information access terminals communicate with each other, and these secure networks are accessible by the normal Internet. Thus the only way to get onto these networks would be to be situated at a terminal on these secure networks, and this isn't an easy task as government data information terminals are well protected also.
The most important reason it would be hard for a cyber spy to steal sensitive information is that the budget for cyber security by the Federal government alone equals more than one billion dollars. The FBI alone has over 1000 network security experts that sole purpose is to protect the Internet and government servers from remote hacking and cracking. The government hunts down the best and brightest individuals in the IT field, albeit extremely bright cyber criminals or MIT graduates, and gives them the best tools and equipment to stop cyber terrorism and other cyber crimes from happening. Roughly speaking, the gross revenue for network security worldwide last year was around $25 billion, more than the GDP of most small countries. It would be very difficult for any terrorist group to raise that kind of funds to wage a cyber war.
So in the future it might be necessary to send in James Bond or Tom Cruise to steal top-secret information from a foreign government, and even easier. The US government has been paranoid about its infrastructure being hacked for over fifteen years, and has spent billions of dollars and thousands of man hours ensuring that government information can only be accessed by those who it is intended for. Cyber espionage is basically moot in the Cyber Age due to awareness of the threat and a large fiscal budget spent securing government networks.