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Cyber terrorism: fact or fiction?

Are net guerrillas new threat or same old hackers rebranded?

Across the pond, the US Defense Department last week awarded Carnegie Mellon University $35m (£22.5m) to fight the growing threat of cyber terrorism over the next five years. Back in the UK, the Corporate IT Forum today announced a new scheme to fight the alleged threat posed by cyber terrorism to the corporate community.

The Corporate IT Forum is pulling together experts from a variety of businesses to pool their expertise about viruses and educate companies on how to protect themselves.

"It is imperative that the collective experience and skills of industry takes the lead on an issue that is costing [companies] millions," said David Roberts, chief executive of the forum.

But this is yet another example of cyber terrorism being used as a blanket term covering the threat of viruses, hackers and miscellaneous security breaches, regardless of whether or not they are actually sent from terrorists.

Experts at antivirus firm Sophos agree that businesses and individuals are at risk from viruses, but believe users would be better off spending time updating firewalls and antivirus programs rather than worrying about possible cyber terrorists.

"I don’t think the average user has to be any more concerned about attacks made by cyber terrorists than they do by the attacks made by traditional virus writers and hackers," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at antivirus firm Sophos.

Cluley believes the threats posed by cyber terrorists have been blown out of proportion since last year's 11 September attacks.

"I think there is a danger that some elements of the US government, in particular, have been hyping the threat of cyber terrorism in an attempt to increase the budgets in their departments," said Cluley. "There have been predictions of attacks on specific dates in the past, none of which has come true".

But despite the lack of reported cyber terrorism attacks, Carnegie Mellon University will still benefit from this year's allocation of $8m from the grant, designed to help to stop cyber terrorists (possibly before they even get started).

Pradeep Khosla, who heads the university's electrical and computer engineering department, admitted that such attacks from virus writers and hackers have always existed and that "terrorism has only increased the visibility of these problems".

The University's approach seems to back the general feeling that most cyber attacks aren't actually from terrorists at all, but from ordinary hackers and virus writers who have been a nuisance for years.

Carnegie is using the money to research ways to engineer artificial intelligence into hardware, so that components such as hard disk drives could take countermeasures in the event of a hacker attack.

But Cluley points out: "If we cannot effectively stop pornography on the net, the chances of stopping virus writers and hackers seem minimal."

Sophos' free virus info feed service, which provides users with up-to-the-minute information on the latest viruses and hoaxes, can be downloaded here.


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