Terrorists slow to swap guns for keyboards

When it comes to terrorism, it's a wonder more people aren't making use of information technology, says PhD student Jonathon Swanson.

When it comes to terrorism, it’s a wonder more people aren’t making use of information technology, says PhD student Jonathon Swanson.

Swanson, of Auckland University, is doing a thesis on information warfare and how states formulate their doctrines for it. He is also examining the use of technology by terrorist groups.

He’s been surprised at how slowly terrorists are moving towards IT in place of hijacking planes and blowing up buildings.

“If a group had a grudge there are all sorts of tools out there on the internet they could use to attack states.”

Swanson says if Al Qaeda had been more high tech in its attack on the US, attacking the banking system, for example, Afghanistan might have averted the massive military retaliation from the US.

“It’s doubtful the US would go to war with someone who closed the banks for two days although that would inflict huge damage. Because the US has such a strong military there’s no one who would want to engage it head to head but they could leapfrog that by going into the realm of information technology.”

Despite a slow IT uptake by terrorists, New Zealand is pushing through the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Bill, which will give government agencies the power to intercept email. And last month it opened the Centre for Critical Infrastructure Protection which is dedicated to providing advice and support to protect the nation’s infrastructure from cyber threats.

In the US the federal government is enacting legislation aimed at broadening cooperation between the private sector and law enforcement officials charged with counter-terrorism efforts. US technology executives have been called on to install systems to help officials find terrorists, share more information about the weaknesses of their own IT infrastructures and help their CEOs advise the government on how to protect the nation from attacks on critical industries such as utilities and financial services.

Swanson began his PhD with help from the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust, which is funded by the French government but is administered by the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs.

He won funding on the basis that once his thesis is finished (he is half way through) he will have some insight into preventing cyber-terrorism.

“I don’t think there is anything new to be said in that field. It’s just a matter of doing what you should do — having protection for your infrastructure and computer networks. Ultimately you can never be totally secure. You have to weigh the risks against the inconvenience. To be useful information has to be accessed.”

In August he will visit Russia to present his research findings to the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which is affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In his study of official strategies for information warfare, Swanson is focusing on the United States, China and Russia, three powers that are large enough to have codified their information warfare doctrines.

So far, he says, the high-tech warfare has come entirely from the American side. The destruction of the World Trade Centre he describes as an extreme example of old-fashioned terrorism.

A likely future scenario, he suggests, is that terrorists will begin to do their work by hacking into global positioning satellites or the computers of air traffic controllers, setting up remote connections that will cause planes to crash or trains to switch onto collision courses.

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