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Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism
IT Attack as an Amplifier of a Physical Attack
Given IT’s critical role in many other elements of the national infrastructure and in responding to a crisis, the targeting of IT as part of a multipronged attack scenario could have catastrophic consequences. Compromised IT can have several disastrous effects: expansion of terrorists’ opportunities to widen the damage of a physical attack (for example, by providing false information that drives people toward rather than away from the point of attack); diminishment of timely responses to the attack (by interfering with communications systems of first responders); and heightened terror in the population through misinformation (by providing false information about the nature of the threat). The techniques to compromise key IT systems—e.g., launching distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks against Web sites and servers of key government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, using DDOS to disrupt agencies’ telephone services and the emergency-response 911 system, or sending e-mails containing false information with forged return addresses so they appear to be from trusted sources—are fairly straightforward and widely known.
Other Possibilities for Attack Using IT
When an element of the IT infrastructure is directly targeted, the goal is to destroy a sufficient amount of IT-based capability to have a significant impact. For example, one might imagine attacks on the computers and data storage devices associated with important facilities. Irrecoverable loss of critical operating data and essential records on a large scale would likely result in catastrophic and irreversible damage to U.S. society. While no law of physics prevents the simultaneous destruction of all data backups and backup facilities in all locations, such an attack would be highly complex and difficult to execute, and is thus implausible.
The infrastructure of the Internet is another possible target, and given its prominence, may appeal to terrorists as an attractive target. The Internet could be seriously degraded for a relatively short period of time by a denial-of-service attack, but this is unlikely to be long lasting. The Internet itself is a densely connected network of networks,5 which means that a large number of important nodes would have to be destroyed simultaneously to bring it down for an extended period of time. Destruction of some key Internet nodes would result in slowed traffic across the Internet, but the ease with which Internet communications can be rerouted would minimize the long-term damage.6 (In this regard, the
See CSTB (2001b). Note, however, that the amount of redundancy is primarily limited by economic factors.
This comment largely applies to U.S. use of the Internet. It is entirely possible that other nations—whose traffic is often physically routed through the United States through one or two locations—would fare much worse in this scenario.