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Prospect of Iraq conflict raises new cyberattack fears

By Dan Verton
September 27, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - If history is a guide, any Bush administration plan to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq would likely set off a firestorm of hacker activity targeting U.S. networks and infrastructure. And those attacks could be greater in number and affect a broader cross-section of U.S. businesses than anything seen before, according to intelligence experts.
Surges in cyberattack activity have typically accompanied major international crises during the last several years, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war in Kosovo and the collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea last year (see story).
However, any significant expansion of the U.S.-led war against terrorism, including an invasion of Iraq, could unleash an unprecedented wave of hacker activity, intelligence and security experts said.
Eric Shaw, a former psychological profiler at the CIA, said he will be watching for increases in activity from specific threat groups.
"Islamic hacking groups have been uniting over the India-Pakistan and Israeli-Palestine [conflicts] and they are traditionally Iraq supporters and anti-U.S. and anti-Israel," said Shaw, who now works as a cybersecurity consultant at Stroz Associates LLC in New York.
A second group includes a mixture of U.S. and European-based antiwar hackers, said Shaw. "Think about [groups] of young, liberal, elite, Western-educated youth [coming out] against the war. It would be a lot smaller than the Vietnam generation but could still be potent," he said.
Moreover, a ground war in Iraq could spur other governments in the region to launch sophisticated state-sponsored information warfare campaigns. That's the conclusion of a study published two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks by the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth College.
Ruth David, former director of science and technology at the CIA and now CEO of Analytic Services Inc. in Arlington, Va., said an orchestrated attack exploiting well-known vulnerabilities could be launched with little regard for precise targeting, and could cause significant disruption and financial loss to the "softest targets," the bulk of which are in the private sector.
"Ironically, a serious attack of this type may engender even greater public support for any military action under way and is unlikely to seriously impede our ability to achieve military objectives," said David.
The Bush administration has formally stated that it is the policy of the U.S. to respond to cyberattacks by any means appropriate, including military action.
"Such an attack could significantly debilitate U.S. and allied information networks," the Dartmouth study concluded. That report was written under the guidance of Michael Vatis, a former director of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center.
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