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[ISN] Cyber-terror drama skates on thin Black Ice
From: InfoSec News (isnc4i.org)
Date: Thu Feb 26 2004 - 01:15:07 CST
[ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0072227877/c4iorg - WK]
By Thomas C Greene in Washington
Computerworld columnist Dan Verton has covered the security beat for
several years. He has recently weighed in on the cyber-terror
discussion with a book called Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of
Verton gets off to a good start in his introduction, where he notes
that physical attacks against high-value communications infrastructure
are an important area of concern. He also suggests that the
destructive effects of a physical terror attack could be intensified
by a simultaneous attack against local communications infrastructure
by hampering rescue efforts. At that point, I was anticipating a
balanced discussion of the threats and risks associated with cyber
terror, which is, after all, something that has never occurred.
Unfortunately, the book soon loses its balance and tips increasingly
in the direction of paranoid speculation. This shift in tone
culminates on page 96, where Verton claims that "we can safely discard
the opinions of those who argue that cyber-terrorism ... is
impossible." At that point I lost all sympathy for what the author was
saying. It is indeed reasonable to question the plausibility of
cyber-terrorism; and it's quite preposterous to "discard the opinions"
of sceptics. There are some very smart and knowledgeable people who
think cyber-terror is a myth.
But discard them Verton does. His book is far more concerned with the
wholesale retailing of dire predictions from paranoid bureaucrats like
former cyber-security czar Richard Clarke and ex-Microserf Howard
Schmidt than a realistic exploration of the dangers involved.
Indeed, wherever Verton writes about cyber-terror per se, it is always
in the form of a fictional scenario. Because we've yet to experience
cyber-terrorism, there's little one can say about it from a strictly
factual point of view - certainly not enough to fill a book.
And this leads to another problem: the book spends a great deal of
time talking about al-Qaeda and radical jihadists in general, showing
us what creeps they are, as if we didn't already know, and speculating
that if these creatures ever decided to blow up power stations and
telephone infrastructure, or become elite hackers, we'd all be in
This general material takes up a great deal of the book, and forms is
its hollow center. We can talk about terrorist possibilities until
we're blue in the face, but at its core, terror is about sudden and
violent death, not inconvenience. It's hard to imagine a terror outfit
attacking power distribution infrastructure after seeing the complete
lack of panic and mayhem in the wake of this Summer's blackout in the
US and Canada. People were inconvenienced, all right; but they coped
with it, the broken stuff got fixed, and no one was killed,
traumatized, or horrified.
Terror doesn't come from having the lights go dim or the phones go
dead or the ATM go haywire. Terror comes from hundreds or even
thousands of people suddenly and violently murdered in an instant.
This is what terrorists are after, not power outages. Unfortunately,
the book emphasizes threats to infrastructure as if they were the
primary worry, when, in fact, an infrastructure attack can only
intensify a real terror attack. It is not one in itself.
Verton's sources are almost exclusively himself, and bureaucrats
concerned with cyber-terror. There are no sceptical voices in the
book, and not even an attempt at offering counter-arguments to a
sceptical point of view. The book barely acknowledges that there are
valid arguments questioning cyber-terror and its significance. And
Verton's habit of using his own articles for reference gets suspicious
after a while. There's certainly nothing wrong with a journalist
pointing readers to his articles for additional information; but here,
because there is so little hard evidence Verton can supply to
substantiate his claims, the self-references take on a flavor of, "and
you know it's true because I've said it before."
The book is highly speculative and fails to confront opposing views.
We're told that we can "safely discard the opinions" of sceptics, but
we're not told why. The book's argumentative force rests on the
assertion that we should worry about cyber-terror because Richard
Clarke, Howard Schmidt and Tom Ridge worry about it - and because
security vendors reaching out for juicy gobbets of Homeland Security
pork "worry" about it too.
Black Ice will appeal to readers who already believe that cyber-terror
is a clear and present danger. Those who have yet to make up their
minds will find a one-sided discourse, and would do well to follow it
with a more balanced book such as Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier
before drawing any conclusions. Cyber-terror sceptics will not be
persuaded by Verton's arguments, or his sources, and should probably
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