Just hours after a surface to air missile passed within metres of an Israeli airliner in Kenya last week, media websites began humming. Internet chatrooms set up by Islamic sympathisers had been buzzing with rumours of an attack barely a week before. It was just one in a long line of hysterical media reports alluding to the way the internet has been co-opted by “cyberterrorists” for their evil ends.

Since September 11, for which much of the planning happened over email, cyber-terrorism – loosely defined as using computers to intimidate others to further political or social objectives – has become a useful buzzword. Governments have used it to justify ramping up internet monitoring and – some argue – a corresponding crackdown on civil liberties online.

The official fear is that religious or political zealots could, for instance, hack into a hospital computer system to change a ward’s dosage of medicine; or switch off a city’s power supply; or change the operations at a sewage treatment works to poison the water.

In November last year, the European Union member states signed the Convention on Cybercrime. It was the first international treaty on crimes committed via the internet and other computer networks, dealing with infringements of copyright, computer-related fraud, child pornography and violations of network security.

It also contained a series of powers, such as the search of networks and “legitimate interception” of communications traffic. Europe is not the only one to resort to these methods. Last Thursday, President Bush signed legislation creating the new Homeland Security Department, which will bring together 22 federal agencies to help stop nuclear, chemical and biological attacks, and, specifically, cyberterrorism.

Japan is so concerned about the possibilities of cyberattack that they have thrown a virtual fence around the country to check email and web traffic. But Hollywood-style hacker scenarios such as those outlined in the latest James Bond movie are far removed from reality. At least, that’s according to the people who should know: the hackers themselves.

As hackers and security consultants gathered last week for Dublin’s Hivercon conference, a newer and simpler argument was aired: that it is far easier to be a real-world terrorist than a virtual-world one.

Simple Nomad is a senior security analyst for BindView Corporation and a founder of the Nomad Mobile Research Centre, an internationally known group of hackers. He is concerned about how governments are using the cyberterrorist pretext to “sniff” personal email and web traffic.

“Cyberterrorism is a catchy phrase and seems to be a hot topic. I’m not saying that a hack could never lead to someone’s death, but it’s much easier for a terrorist to throw a knapsack of poison into a reservoir than to do something remotely with a computer,” he says. “If I knew George Bush was going into hospital and would be on a life support system, conceivably I could interrupt the power grid or hit the back-up batteries in the middle of his operation. But most of these systems already have a lot of safeguards, mainly just to prevent simple accidents.”

Nomad argues that the biggest hackers, in fact, are governments themselves. “There are at least 10 governments out there – like the US, the British, the Germans, the Chinese – with very sophisticated teams. In the name of cyberterrorism, there is more funding than ever going into the listening and data sniffing capability of governments.”

It is this capability that is often being used by countries to gain commercial advantage over other countries, not prevent terrorism, claims Nomad. He says one of the biggest “sniffers” is the international Echelon project, set up by western governments to sniff the net, telephones, and almost everything digital to provide intelligence for the security services.

Most of Echelon is large scale, to do with all telecommunications – which is why, he says, national governments have had to introduce such legislation as the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to be able to monitor pure ISP internet traffic.

So can hackers really gain access to sensitive data? “Most of the big stuff, like military systems, can’t be accessed anyway. There are air-gaps – things not connected to the outside internet,” says Nomad. He is dismissive of the recent case where Gary McKinnon, a 36-year-old former systems administrator from London, allegedly deleted files on a server used by a US navy command centre between April and September of last year. Nomad believes this is a rare case and that the files could not have been sensitive if they were accessible via the net.

Tom Reeve, editor of Security magazine, agrees: “From a global perspective, I am far less concerned about cyberterrorism and hacking than acts of terrorism in the physical world. With bombs going off around the world and everyone wondering when al-Qaida will strike next, who cares if a web server gets hacked?”

He admits he would be as annoyed as anyone if his web site was hacked or defaced: “But you couldn’t justify diverting large amounts of resources from anti-terrorism in the physical world to protect my assets in the virtual world.”

That’s the argument of Hivercon speaker Richard Thieme, a consultant who is also contributing editor for Information Security Magazine and a regular speaker at the Black Hat Briefings and DefCon, the well-known hacker conferences. Thieme says some of these cases are legitimate causes for concern, but that usually, cyberterrorism is a sideline affair.

“It’s a lot easier to blow up a pipeline in the middle of nowhere than it is to hack your way in over a computer terminal,” he says. “A single car bomb in the right place in Wall Street, in conjunction with the events of 9/11, would have taken out the US financial system. Not a hack.”

Such “force multipliers” can make a terrorist attack a great deal worse. “Using hackers in conjunction with real world events would have more impact, but just bringing down a web server does not,” he says. Cyberterrorising is more often than not directed at opposing groups, rather than governments.

In the Israeli-Palestinian battle, criminal hackers, or “crackers”, on both sides are constantly attacking one another’s web sites. A Pakistani cracker once stole the credit card numbers of members of a pro-Israel lobbying group and posted them online.

Indeed, it is the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, not western Europe, that have often been at the forefront of official attempts to block techno-terrorists.

Last week, Indian mobile phone companies were facing the prospect of a government plan to tap into SMS (short messaging service) mobile mail services to combat malicious hackers. And last year, the Yaha virus emerged to launch a rudimentary denial of service attack on the Pakistan government’s website. But since then, computer hackers have reverted to type – going for corporate systems in the main.

According to Synstar, an information security company, 1,057 corporate organisations were hacked in September – a five-fold increase over the previous year’s 225 attacks.

Thieme is one of the first to admit that the internet – the ultimate “network technology” – helped create the events of September 11. Although America’s intelligence communities were well aware of the threat posed by small bands of fundamentalists before 9/11, “it brought home to them that the way power is distributed has been changed by network technology”, says Thieme.

In fact, in common with Simple Nomad, he points out that the US itself is capable of the biggest acts of cyberte
orism. “The US has enough electronic warfare capabilities in its own right. High power micro
waves can knock out command and control centres. It’s not necessary to just hack the enemy’s network. We did this in Kosovo, and in Iraq.”

“Ultimately, the idea of a cyber Pearl Harbor is pure hype. The surrender of some liberties in the name of security is about physical security and terrorism, not cyberterrorism, which is a less important subset. People are much more worried about dirty bombs and gas attacks.”

Thieme argues that the true cyber threat does not come in the traditional form of the disaffected hacker located in a remote country, but the insider – the guy who already knows all the passwords and works inside the system.

“The next stage for technology is true globalisation. We’ll see a single kind of flexible interface develop which unites all societies. So the biggest threat to society is an insider who uses our own technology like an insider – just as happened on 9/11.”

In the final analysis, however, hackers saying they are not going to get involved in cyberterrorism is not going to be enough to call off the dogs and halt the data clampdown, even if some of the most sensitive systems are not directly connected to the internet.

Jason Hart, head of security with consultants Synstar says: “As far as we know, no one has died as a result of the work of a hacker, but we’ll never know the true answer because of the nature of hacking.

‘Good’ hackers don’t leave any trace of their incursion into a system. So, for instance, someone could hack into an airline system to change the weight allowance on an airliner’s payload, causing the plane to crash on take-off or landing.

“Everyone is aware of the physical threat to, say a reservoir, but at the end of the day, that threat has to be checked using computer systems, which are vulnerable,” says Hart. He points to evidence that drug cartels have employed hackers to do such things as fooling banking systems to take a pound every month from 20,000 individual credit card accounts.

“You can hide the fact that a pound goes missing and use that money to fund more hacking. Terrorists could use this model to fund their own activities. “The biggest threat is ignorance – people believing it will not happen to them.”

Guardian Unlimited | Online | Cyber hype