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Watch the Skies

"It is easy to appreciate the devastation of a physical attack and what it can bring but we must not underestimate the potentially devastating consequences of an electronic attack."

These were the words of Home Secretary, John Reid, yesterday at a conference organised by the Royal United Services Institute and it echoed the “Facing the possibility of an electronic Pearl Harbor” speech given to the US Congress by Secretary of Defense John Hamre in 1997, who added: "There is going to be an electronic attack on this country some time in the future."

This particular alarmist theme has been enthusiastically peddled by several security companies, since the Twin-towers collapsed; the possibility of a "cyber-terrorist" attack on what is known as our "critical information infrastructure" and while the evidence for Al Qaeda or its supporters having the necessary technical skills to commit significant online disruption, is at best shaky, that hasn’t prevented the Home Office recognising a good headline, with Dr Reid worrying aloud, that “Terrorists could attempt to cause economic chaos or plane crashes in an electronic attack on the UK's computer networks.”

Most recently we heard that the police had, last year, prevented a well advanced plot to infiltrate and attack Telehouse in Docklands, the biggest Internet hub in Europe and the principal routing point for the majority of UK internet traffic. This operation followed the success of a second enquiry, when, MI5, found evidence to suggest that Islamic terror groups were targeting the Bacton gas terminal complex in Norfolk .

Since 9-11, I’ve had several conversations with well-placed individuals who have considered the likely possibility and success of “cyber-terrorism” and while identifying targets of opportunity, they have, in each and every case, dismissed the idea as being unlikely to succeed or meet the expectations of any terrorist group because of the complexity of the operation and the organisational demands that would be made upon the group attempting to carry it out.

Like the Ricin poison plot and others, such attacks when foiled, appear to exist mostly in the imagination of the potential terrorists, who, as we have seen in the media, aren’t skilled to the levels of a James Bond movie mastermind but are broadly into tinkering with the crude and violent results of home chemistry experiments.

What worries government, particularly in the public sector, is that a career in IT is a popular choice for many better-educated and disaffected young men from the same risk group that gave us 7-7. This can be broadly illustrated in the sophisticated domestic use of the internet for communications, production and exchange of extremist material. A fundamental challenge for law-enforcement and the security services, isn’t so much the risk of an attack on electronic infrastructure from outside the organisation but one from within, following the pattern we regularly see with organised crime groups.

While Dr Reid would rather keep us on our toes and believing that his vigilance will protect us from internet meltdown or the disruption of Heathrow’s air traffic control by a terrorist group, the real risks are likely to be rather more mundane and perhaps involve data loss, data theft or disruption on a more localised basis from an individual using his privileges to compromise the organisation in which he works.

Alternatively, you can subscribe to the apocalyptic type of plot that you might expect from novelist “Tom Clancy”, where the New York Exchange is shut down by rogue code in a software upgrade.

Historically, since the first hijacked airliners were blown-up in Jordan thirty years ago, terrorists have preferred grand explosive statements of contempt for our society. The evidence suggests that it will remain that way and given the sad and expensive record of public-sector failure in large IT projects, perhaps, we’ll discover in fifty years that the results were down to action from Al Qaeda and not the management consultants after all.

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