Cyber-attack 'could cripple Britain'

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The Independent Online

Britain could be crippled by a cyber-terrorist attack, a former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority warned today.

Britain could be crippled by a cyber-terrorist attack, a former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority warned today.

Lord Toby Harris said an attack by terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden, could bring the UK to its knees.

He warned that al-Qa'ida could engage in hi-tech internet terrorism to seriously damage the British economy.

Lord Harris said that a highly motivated computer literate terrorist could hack into banking and financial systems, government and public services, communication networks and police.

He cited the disruption caused to the HM Coastguard last year by the Sasser worm virus and said this could be the tip of the iceberg.

"The threat could come from teenage hackers with no more motivation than proving that it could be done, but even more seriously it could come from cyber-terrorists intent on bringing about the downfall of our society," Lord Harris said.

"The problems caused by previous virus attacks have been the result of individual unco-ordinated efforts of a small handful of anti-social electronic juvenile delinquents, not a systematic attack by an organised adversary intentionally designed to disrupt our systems and services."

Lord Harris went on: "An organised attack would be many times more dangerous. I am not alone in these fears.

"General John Gordon, the White House's homeland security adviser, has said that he believes that Osama bin Laden plans to use the internet to cause serious damage to the economies of the West.

"It is well known that computers seized from those allegedly engaged in al Qaida activities have demonstrated that those using them have a high level of IT skill and literacy."

The Labour peer, a former leader of Haringey Borough Council and member of the Greater London Assembly, was speaking at a conference at Chatham House today.

He said the effect of a cyber-terrorist attack could be even worse because much of Britain's infrastructure was unregulated.

Lord Harris called for the Government's advisory panel, the National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre, to be given regulatory powers.

"Some regulation is clearly necessary," he said.

"As a minimum, the Government should be able to establish standards for the design and operation of the components of the critical national infrastructure."

Lord Harris used the example of HM Coastguard - a Government-run agency - that was hit by an internet worm virus last year to show he was not overreacting.

"What happens were there to be a serious attack that severely damaged the critical national infrastructure?" he asked.

"What powers are available to the Government to manage the national response and to direct the restitution of the systems as speedily as possible?

"These are serious concerns. MI5 has been reported as saying that Britain is four meals away from anarchy in effect that Britain could be quickly reduced to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting, in the event of a serious disruption of the critical national infrastructure.

"There exists a significant vulnerability in the systems on which we all rely. Priority must be given to addressing the weakness and creating the necessary recovery plan."