'Cyber-terrorism does not pose a significant threat to the Western security' - British expert

Photo: EPA
As global internet community grows by the minute, cyber-security experts continue to wonder how to make internet a safer place. In an interview to the Voice of Russia, Peter Warren, Chairman of Cyber Security Research Institute, UK, shared his thoughts on the issues of cyber-security and cyber-terrorism. According to Mr Warren, the possibility that terrorist organizations will use the internet to fulfill their malicious plans is rather low since a computer attack does not have that ‘chilling effect’ which is so often sought by terrorists.
The threat of cyber-crime, on the other hand, remains very real. In pursuit of greater revenues companies often rush to place their software on the market while being reluctant to check their new products for possible vulnerabilities which all too often serve as entry points for cyber-attacks. To minimize the probability of cyber-crime the expert urges to rethink the whole process of computer industry. Voice of Russia: Many international terrorist groups now actively use computers and the internet to communicate, but cyber-terrorism still remains a relatively rare occurrence. Do you think that terrorist networks might be avoiding the internet? Peter Warren: Yes, apart from for communication and fund-raising purposes, international terrorist groups are actually avoiding the internet at the moment. The reason for such avoidance is that it scares them. One of the primary characteristics of modern terrorist organizations is that they like to be anonymous. The traditional cell structures that they have been running for years helped them to achieve a very high level of anonymity and they do not want to compromise it. Those terrorist networks that have expertise to carry out a cyber-attack are well aware that the very moment they hit the internet they will be running a risk to be tracked and found because such organizations are being quite heavily monitored by the intelligence agencies all over the world. So, what is more likely is that a national-state player – a state with competence – could seek to destabilize an opponent by outsourcing the capability to the terrorist organization. Voice of Russia: Following your line of reasoning, it seems that cyber-violence is a particular kind of state-terrorism. Is this what you are implying? Peter Warren: I would say that this is a very real possibility and it is a very real trend. The only entity that has a capability to carry out an attack on a state’s critical infrastructure is another state. To achieve deniability, such a state could use a terrorist organization as a proxy. Voice of Russia: It is often claimed that the harm from cyber-terrorism can be compared to the harm from a more direct, physical terrorist attack. Would you agree? Peter Warren: That is actually the other issue because of which terrorist organizations are avoiding the internet. It is in the agenda of being a terrorist that you want to cause an outrage that scares people and makes them extremely anxious. The global reaction to 9/11 attacks is the best illustration of what terrorists ideally seek to achieve. Their main aim is to induce terror and it is fairly difficult to do it through the internet. If you are a terrorist organization and you use a virus that deteriorates the performance of the British transport system, for example, then all that this cyber-attack will do is cause a lot of irritation. It will not cause terror. In this respect, at the moment, cyber-terrorism per se does not pose a significant threat to the Western security; cyber-crime does. Voice of Russia: How about the harm that a cyber-attack can cause to a state’s economy or military infrastructure? We all remember how Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was attacked by Stuxnet. Would you say that this is not terrifying enough if a nuclear plant goes astray due to a cyber-attack? Peter Warren: This is the point I was about to come onto. There is now a fairly universal agreement that the Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear plant was put together by the joint efforts of the American-Israeli team and was not the work of any terrorist organization. Quite simply, for a terrorist group, such an attack was not ‘terrifying’ enough and was too ‘well-planned’ in a sense that the virus did not go much further than it was intended to. Although there was leakage of Stuxnet to India and some other areas, the attack was still very well-managed for a terrorist act. However, if such tool as Stuxnet got into the hands of genuine terrorists, the consequences could have been much worse. The nuclear reactor could have simply exploded and the damages would have been massive. This is why, as I said before, terrorist organizations with expertise in cyber-attacks are very closely monitored nowadays. Voice of Russia: It is interesting that a person or an organization behind the Stuxnet attack still remains unknown. Although, as you say, there are some speculations about the identity of the initiators, no one knows for sure who the attacker was. Why such difficulty with the perpetrator's identification? Peter Warren: This is one of the main problems with cyber-crime because you never know for sure where the things are coming from. One of the main problems with identification is the profound deficiency in the routing system in the internet. There have been some suggestions about how to fix this, but they all stumble upon the problem of funding. It is estimated that it would cost around eighteen billion dollars to correct the deficiencies. While this is not a considerable sum in terms of eradicating the issue, this budget would have to be agreed on internationally which is very difficult. That said, however, the intelligence agencies in Russia, in the UK, in America have developed a mechanism that allows them to track the virus to its origin. Obviously, the agencies will never tell the press how they do this, but it is known for sure that it is possible to locate the attackers. Voice of Russia: Vulnerabilities in software and computer system configurations provide the entry points for cyber-attacks. How can these deficiencies be minimized? Peter Warren: Vulnerabilities in code is a huge issue. The problem is that the way computer industry has been evolving as a very competitive market, security has always been a very low priority. Companies are constantly worried about what their competitors are doing so they want to rush out their software as quickly as they possibly can with no concern for security. In this sense, to minimize these vulnerabilities, we have to rethink the whole process of computer industry. Companies should not be allowed to place products on the market until these have been checked by cyber-security experts. Voice of Russia: In your opinion, what is the most effective countermeasure against cyber-attacks? Peter Warren: I think that one of the most effective means to prevent cyber-crime is raising public awareness. The other thing that can be done is the introduction of mandatory reporting mechanisms of cyber-crime. At the moment we are in an absolutely terrible state when the people will not even admit that they have been attacked precisely because they do not know how to deal with the problem. The third thing that is absolutely necessary is the creation of a global cyber-crime research organization. Although a European-wide research center has already been created for these purposes, there is a burning need for an international response. Admittedly, this is going to be very difficult to achieve because there is no legal consensus on the universal definition of cyber-crime. There are also some governmental organizations that actually have quite an intimate connection with cyber-crime. In essence, these organizations use hackers as deniable mercenaries which makes them significant intelligence assets. Voice of Russia: What about the social networks such as Facebook and Google+? Do they provide a fertile ground for recruitment of potential cyber-criminals? Peter Warren: Facebook and social media groups do currently provide a relatively fertile area for cyber-crime recruitment insofar as it is quite easy to find sympathizers. However, all the subsequent agreements are made elsewhere due to heavy monitoring of the social networks by the intelligence agencies. Source: Voice of Russia

comments powered by Disqus