Toby Harris: Our society is at grave risk from cyber-terrorism

From a speech by the former Metropolitan Police Authority chair, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs

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On 4 May 2000, the Love Bug crippled computers world-wide, causing billions of pounds of damage. In 2003 alone, we saw the "Slammer" worm, which infected more than 300,000 servers in less than 15 minutes, clogging networks across the globe, crashing ATMs and delaying airline flights; the "Blaster" worm that infected half a million PCs in an attempt to hijack them for a co-ordinated attack on Microsoft's security website; and the "Welchia" and "Nachi" worms that disabled many corporate networks for days.

On 4 May 2000, the Love Bug crippled computers world-wide, causing billions of pounds of damage. In 2003 alone, we saw the "Slammer" worm, which infected more than 300,000 servers in less than 15 minutes, clogging networks across the globe, crashing ATMs and delaying airline flights; the "Blaster" worm that infected half a million PCs in an attempt to hijack them for a co-ordinated attack on Microsoft's security website; and the "Welchia" and "Nachi" worms that disabled many corporate networks for days.

As a nation, the systems that are essential for our health and wellbeing rely on computer networks - energy utilities, water and food distribution, transportation, the emergency services, telephones, the banking and financial systems, indeed government and public services - and all of them are vulnerable to serious disruption by cyber-attack, with potentially enormous consequences.

Even what one would expect to be our most secure systems appear to be vulnerable. Since May 2002, when records were first centralised, the Ministry of Defence has reported 71 instances when systems were not just attacked but compromised by malicious programmes.

The threat could come from teenage hackers with no more motivation than proving that it could be done, but more seriously, it could come from organised crime intent on extortion or fraud - or from cyber-terrorists intent on bringing about the downfall of our society. The virus and worm attacks I have just mentioned were the result of individual, unco-ordinated efforts by a handful of anti-social "electronic juvenile delinquents" - not a systematic attack by an organised adversary designed to disrupt our systems and services. An organised attack would be many, many times more dangerous.

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