US fears 'electronic Pearl Harbor'

John Carlin reports on how America is facing the threat of war by computer
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Here is a way for Tupac Amaru, the Peruvian guerrilla movement, to break the deadlock in the hostage stand-off at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima and secure their objective: the release of hundreds of their imprisoned comrades.

Step one is to hire a computer genius. Step two, get the said genius a phone line. Step three, instruct him to hack into Lima's electricity, water and air-traffic control systems.

The stage is now set to engage in information warfare, otherwise known as "infowar", "cyberwar" or "net war". Tupac Amaru could begin by ordering their cyberwarrior to shut off the Peruvian capital's electricity supply, then sending President Alberto Fujimori an e-mail message telling him that normal service will be resumed once he has released the prisoners and allowed the hostage-takers safe passage out of the country.

Should that threat fail to persuade the obdurate Mr Fujimori to relent, or should his own computer people come up with a way of nullifying the attack on the electricity grid, Tupac Amaru could effectively close Lima's airport by jamming communications between the air-traffic control centre and arriving and departing planes. If necessary, they could then reduce the Peruvian president to a gibbering wreck by disrupting Lima's water and gas supplies, the telephone system, and the functions of the central bank.

Tupac Amaru could, in short, achieve the effects of a general strike with a minimum of popular support. They could be holding a virtual gun to Mr Fujimori's head without actually putting him, or themselves, physically at risk. They could achieve their objectives without provoking the politically harmful outrage that usually attends loss of innocent life.

As for Tupac Amaru, so for Hizbollah, the IRA and America's "patriot militias". Bloodless terrorism is the name of the threat, and no one is taking it more seriously, or more urgently addressing itself to a response, than the government of the United States.

John Deutch, the director of the CIA, testified before the Senate last June that the US's growing dependence on computer networks had fostered a vulnerability to attacks that could cripple the nation's economic infrastructure. "Both nations and terrorist organisations can, with relative ease, acquire the techniques to penetrate information systems," he said, thereby opening up the possibility for a small hostile group to take on the might of the US on equal terms.

John McConnell, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), bluntly confessed as much, also last June, during a seminar on information warfare: "We're more vulnerable than any nation on earth,"

Persuaded by the likes of Mr McConnell and Mr Deutch that national security was at risk, President Clinton established a President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, charged with evaluating the scope of the "cyber threat" and recommending strategies to counter it.

"Critical infrastructures" identified include telecommunications, electrical power systems, gas and oil storage, banking and finance, water supply systems, transport and police, fire and medical emergency services. The president's commission, only fully constituted last month, is chaired by a retired US Air Force general, Tom Marsh.

"Even amateurs have access to the technological tools needed to penetrate systems and cause trouble," he said at his first press conference 10 days ago. "And he doesn't even have to live in the same city - or country, for that matter. The information age makes it possible for individuals armed only with computers to gain access to our borders."

A taste of the possibilities was provided two years ago when a 16-year- old Londoner gained access to a sophisticated US defence computer system, causing intelligence agencies to go into a temporary panic.

The Defense Science Board (DSB), a panel that advises the Pentagon, said in a report last month that "an electronic Pearl Harbor" could lie around the corner unless "extraordinary action" was urgently taken to improve computer security. Current practices and assumptions, it said, "are ingredients in a recipe for national disaster", since attacks on US economic infrastructure by terrorist organisation, organised criminals and foreign enemies were likely to be widespread by the year 2005.

John Arquilla, a professor of systems engineering and defence analysis who advises the Pentagon on the implications of the information revolution for national security, predicts that information warfare will arise without armies.

He says: "It will be the war of networks against hierarchical institutions. It will be the transnational criminal cartels, it will be terrorists, but it will also be freedom fighters and insurgents reaching out for human rights and social equity. And the Net Warriors will be non-governmental organisations, as well as armed bands. And that war, I think, is going to be the most prevalent over the next century."