Computers and the internet have become so ingrained in our lives that many of us have become ambivalent to the security threat that surround this technology. To many, security is that annoying pop-up that appears at the bottom of your screen, reminding you that you haven’t renewed your anti-virus software. But would people be so quick to cancel this message if instead it said ‘cyber-terrorism is here and here to stay’? Although the individual can avoid this question, for governments and large corporations, it is not so easy to ignore.
The highly publicized attack on Sony Pictures is the most recent reminder of this. On 24 November 2014 personal information emails between employees, executive salary figures and copies of previously unreleased films were stolen. The hackers demanded the cancellation of the release of The Interview, a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogan plotting to kill the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The US claim that these attacks came from North Korea, the mysterious, shielded dictatorship that only makes its intentions known behind a keyboard.
Whilst early cyber-crime did involve breaches of security for individuals and governments, the attacks could be seen more as experiments by curious hackers. This did not lessen their effect though. ILOVEYOU, a computer worm in 2000, attacked tens of millions of Windows computers while masquerading as a love letter.
However, it was not until the late 2000s that cyber-crime really started to be more recognisable as cyber-terrorism. One of the most worrying developments was the creation of the world’s first digital weapon, Stuxnet. Whereas previous cyber-crimes relied on hijacking target computers or stealing information, Stuxnet could actually cause physical destruction to equipment that computers controlled. This could be anything from machine factory assembly lines to amusement rides to centrifuges in nuclear facilities. Although these computers are air-gapped – meaning they do not have any connection to the internet – hackers spread the infection through USB flash drives in outside companies, which are connected to the target computers. So far the attacks seem to be focussed on Iranian nuclear facilities, with reports of one fifth of their centrifuges being destroyed in this manner.
It is not only direct cyber-attacks that are a concern. Terrorist organisations may be able to gain access to maps, schematics and various other sources of data that help in gathering information on potential targets. It is a platform for fundraising, whether through legal or illegal means, and can be a key tool in the communication and networking between terrorist groups and individuals. It has also been recognised as a tool for recruiting terrorists.
It is not all bad news. Terrorist groups being so visible on the internet can allow for more effective monitoring by governments. Different schemes are seen across different countries which screen and censor sensitive information on websites, forums and blogs. In the UK the Government has implemented the Prevent Strategy, which aims to challenge extremist ideas and terrorist activities. Of course this is not a foolproof system and it also brings up wider issues with privacy and freedom of speech.
Whilst efforts clearly need to be made to suppress terrorist activity, this should not mean taking away the rights of anyone to have their own ideals. Recent controversy surrounding Green Party leader Natalie Bennett – who stated that it should not be a crime to simply belong to a terrorist organisation, as long as no there is no aiding or abetting of criminal acts by the individual – highlights the issue of governments interfering with the rights of individuals to free speech. The internet should be a place for free speech as long as it is not causing harm to people; taking that away is only likely to lead to more anger and more acts of terrorism.
A way that the internet is being used effectively in the fight against terrorism is through research, which uses social media as a base for information. Researchers from Kings College London, led by Peter Neumann, used social media to understand the motivations for foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq. It is thought that in total 20,700 people have gone to these countries as foreign fighters, with one fifth coming from Western countries. Governments are concerned that these fighters may return and execute terrorist activities on home soil. But through tracking and engaging with foreign fighters, the researchers at Kings College have been able to determine the motivations for such trips. It was found that the West being at war with Islam was not a strong reason for foreign fighters to go to Syria and Iraq, although there is evidence that this could be changing.
The research has also provided evidence that the significance of the internet and social media in recruiting people to become foreign fighters has been overstated. It was found that the most influential accounts on Twitter were in fact from so called ‘cheerleaders’ who are not based in Syria and Iraq and are not associated with ISIS. It was actually found that foreign fighters tend to arrive in clusters from the same areas and face-to-face recruitment seems to have the biggest impact.
There is no clear-cut answer to whether computer technology is helping or hindering terrorists, but the evidence seems to point towards the former. This does not mean that the internet should become a place of fear. It has created a world that is much more open, with information allowing us to expand our minds, connect with people in previously unimaginable ways and make our lives just that little bit easier, as well as allowing us to waste time on Candy Crush and Sporcle.
The nature of terrorism is changing and we should be aware of that and take action to minimise its impact. We must also be cautious of overstating risks and overlooking the benefits of the technologically advanced world we live in. To put it simply, it might be a good idea to renew that anti-virus software.
Feature Image: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images