Cyberterrorism is a frightening phenomenon. Not only does it have the power to create havoc, but it’s also very mysterious to people who know how it happens or what they can do to protect themselves from it.
In this article, we work to correct that problem. Below you will find information on what cyber terrorism is, what kind of threats are out there, and how organizations, individuals, and government agencies can protect themselves from infiltration.
Table of Contents
Defining Cyber Terrorism
Everyone has, of course, heard stories of cybercrime. The hotel super chain Marriott famously made headlines when it was revealed that they’d experienced a data breach that indirectly impacted the information of hundreds of millions of customers.
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Not only was this breach notable for its scope — no publicized information breach has occurred on such a large scale — but also for how it took place. Marriott was felled by a phishing email opened by one of its employees. The hacker could access the hotel chain’s computer network through this email and linger undetected for years.
Cyber terrorism features many of the same qualities described above. A terrorist group may gain unlawful entrance into a computer network and use it to access sensitive information.
Alternatively, they may destroy or freeze a system to pause productivity. The main difference between ordinary cybercrime and cyber terrorism is motive. A cybercriminal may operate in the hopes of financial gain, while a cyber-terrorist does their work to spread fear or undermine confidence in public institutions.
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Cyber terrorists may target private individuals or businesses but usually focus on large institutions to gain national or international attention. The intention of cyber terrorism is similar to that of any terrorist activity but with the ominous qualifier that attacks can happen from anywhere, at any time.
Cyber terrorists do not require physical proximity to do their work. They don’t need to be actively engaged in the efforts — many viruses will spread automatically once introduced to a computer network.
While cyber terrorism may seem less threatening than, say, public acts of violence, the impact at a societal level can be pretty significant.
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In 2021, the Irish Health Service Executive experienced a ransomware attack unprecedentedly. A group located in Russia, operating unironically under the name of “Wizard Spider,” had accessed their system through software known as “Conti Ransomware.”
During this time, Wizard Spider had total access to and control the Irish Health Service Executive computer network. The terrorist group demanded $20 million as ransom to restore the system to its previous state — a sum the Irish government denied them. It took many weeks for Ireland to restore its computer network to the state it had once been in.
During that time, more than 500 patient files were published online by the terrorist group.
Not only did this attack harm the people directly impacted, but it also created unrest and discomfort on a global scale. If this could happen to Ireland, couldn’t it happen anywhere? How safe are private health records? Or, for that matter, any private information?
Such is the point of cyberterrorism. It isn’t about extracting extravagant sums from the federal government. It isn’t about the specific individuals who find their information leaked online. It’s about creating a sense of fear and uncertainty that can extend well beyond the people directly impacted by the attack.
Indeed, it was subsequently acknowledged that “Wizard Spider” launched a similar attack on the Department of Health. This attack was, fortunately, thwarted, but the message was clear. In cyberspace, anyone and everyone can be targeted.
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What Is Ransomware?
So, what exactly is ransomware? As the above story suggests, ransomware is a program that freezes up a computer system, effectively holding it hostage until the owner or operator forks over money requested by the terrorist.
Of course, like any ransom scenario, there is no assurance that the system will be returned to its previous state once the ransom has been paid. Ransomware attacks have been reported since the 1980s but have continued to evolve to this day.
Though they don’t usually target private individuals, they can and often do impact private businesses—particularly those tasked with serving the public. Unfortunately, this is just one of the many techniques cyberterrorists use to spread fear and distrust in the digital world.
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Digital disinformation campaigns are infamous because they can be difficult to distinguish from legitimate news. Bad actors will lurk on social media, often in the form of bots, automatically pumping bad intelligence onto online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.
The United States has experienced Russian disinformation campaigns for years, during election cycles, and even for vaccine efficacy and distribution.
The impact of these attacks is twofold. For one thing, lousy information impacts public discourse. Large swaths of people may learn and repeat things that aren’t true.
Disinformation campaigns also call legitimate information into question. In a world where bots are pumping fake intel into the web, who can say what’s real?
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Denial of Service
Denial of service happens when a cyberterrorist can render a service completely useless. The ransomware attack experienced by Ireland in the Spring of 2021 was a form of denial of service because it rendered their digital healthcare network effectively unusable.
However, denial of service needn’t necessarily be so splashy or large in scale. It could mean rendering the online interface for a travel company useless. It could mean making it impossible to register online for an appointment or service.
The purpose is, of course, to make things as inconvenient as possible for the impacted people.
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Other cyberterrorist activities involve the destruction of a digital or even physical network. Sometimes, these attacks can be so severe as to render physical computers useless. Such is the case with a notorious virus known as Shamoon.
First detected in 2012, Shamoon has been recognized and feared for its ability to take entire networks of computers entirely out of circulation. This was never seen on such a grand scale as in 2012 when Shamoon targeted Saudi-run oil companies en masse.
The virus took out thousands of computers, resulting in interruptions of service that could last for weeks at a time. As a cyberterrorist event, this had the dual effect of destroying computers and denying the general public a service — oil.
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Shamoon is particularly destructive for its ability to spread rapidly between computers operating on the same system. Once introduced to a computer, it quickly destroys its files and corrupts any backup data. Information lost to Shamoon is usually gone forever.
Though infrequently applied, this virus has resurfaced several times in the last decade, always bringing destruction in its wake.
Of course, there are many other destructive viruses used by cyber terrorists to destroy digi8tal networks.
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How Do Cyber Attacks Happen?
There are many ways that cyber-attacks happen. Some of them are entirely unavoidable. Many, however, are the result of small mistakes that anyone could make.
Below, we look at some of the most common ways people and organizations inadvertently make themselves vulnerable to cyber terrorists.
Most people know that they probably shouldn’t open emails from African princes that need to borrow a few bucks to unlock a vast fortune, just out of reach because—well.
Whatever reason. Indeed, the majority of phishing emails are caught by spam filters and are, in any case, glaringly obvious in their intentions.
Some aren’t. High-quality phishing emails can look like they were sent by a business you are familiar with. They often trick recipients by getting them to type in their login credentials or follow a series of innocuous links.
Most people think they are too clever to fall for a phishing email, but it always happens. Cyberterrists need only a tiny — one employee opening the wrong message to get into an entire system. Such was the case with the Marriott breach. Such is the case in thousands of other, smaller infiltrations all across the globe.
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Sometimes breaches happen simply because an organization’s technology hasn’t been adequately fortified. IoT — Internet of Things — technology is an excellent example.
Anywhere you see intelligent thermostats or printers that know when to order new paper and ink automatically, you are looking at a piece of technology that probably is not adequately fortified against infiltration.
Cyberterrorists can access a business or institution’s wifi network through an IoT device and access much bigger digital systems.
Outdated Firewalls and Digital Infrastructure
Most people have at least some semblance of protection against viruses and other forms of malware. Unless you stay on top of updates and upgrades, you are probably leaving yourself open to attack.
Keep in mind that cyber threats evolve on an almost daily basis. If you aren’t regularly updating your security system, you may not have any protection at all from the latest threat.
Many businesses get themselves into a jam inadvertently, assuming that the cyber security systems they have in place are adequate to protect them from current threats.
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Phones, tablets, and laptops make it easy for people to work on the go. But how are these mobile workers gaining access to the world wide web?
Usually, through wifi. Unfortunately, when you are out in public, it can be difficult to discern which wifi networks are secure and which can leave you open to attack.
Fire up your computer at any coffee shop, and you’re likely to be greeted by a slew of wifi options. While most may be, and indeed probably are innocuous, bad actors can set up wifi hotspots that give them access to the information of anyone who connects.
A Poorly Trained Staff
Then there are the risks of poor training or simple complacency. An employee doesn’t take good care of their passwords. Or they visit the wrong website, or…well. The list of mistakes a person can make online is long enough to fill its article.
These mistakes are neither deliberate nor malicious, but the impact is significant.
Protecting Yourself from Cyber Terrorism
Organizations looking to protect themselves from cyber terrorism should:
Audit their security: Find a professional to examine your system and identify its vulnerabilities.
Cyber analysts view networks and look at them from a cyber criminal’s perspective. They will point out vulnerabilities, update security systems, and recommend how to secure your network better.
Train your staff: Make sure your staff understands what is expected of them where cyber security is concerned and emphasize these expectations accordingly in your training.
The tone is essential. Treat cyber security as a topic for which education is ongoing. Make training regular, insist that management and higher-up positions visibly participate, and emphasize these practices themselves.
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Consider multi-verification login requirements: No one likes multi-verification requirements. They are tedious and time-consuming, but they can also be an excellent way to secure networks. Passwords alone are often not an acceptable way to secure data.
These processes may feel tedious and complicated, but in practice, they are similar to how businesses secure their physical property. Most will lock their doors, control who has keys and set up cameras and alarms. Approach cyber security with a similar attitude, and the chances of experiencing a breach will diminish significantly.
Interested in Getting into Cyber Security?
Interested in getting into cyber security? Follow the link to learn more about how to protect networks and play your part in thwarting cyber terrorism.