By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
INN SCHWARTAU WAS STANDING IN the shower of his suburban Nashville home one morning 13 years ago when he was visited, he says, by a vision. It was a vision of the future, a vivid and terrifying image of a high-tech apocalypse.
He saw terrorists with keyboards, unleashing swarms of computer viruses into cyberspace. He saw gangs of foreign mercenaries hacking computerized banking systems and tipping the Western economic system into chaos. He saw religious fanatics gaining access to electric power grids and triggering mass blackouts. He saw sewage treatment plants overflowing, life-support machines sputtering, bridges falling, planes crashing.
"I just closed my eyes, and this whole movie played out in my mind," he says. "I counted up all the threat-based capabilities out there and glued them together. They added up to a nightmare."
A former rock & roll producer with a bushy, black mustache, Schwartau took up computers in the early '80s as a "quaint hobby" and went on to start a successful Virginia computer-security company. But after his near-religious experience, Schwartau became a full-time dark prophet of the digital age, joining a growing legion of computer engineers, think tankers, academics, novelists and spies convinced that America was headed for what Schwartau called "an electronic Pearl Harbor."
September 11 instantly recast the threat from a sci-fi pipe dream into what the Bush administration is treating as a grim probability. Today, so-called cyberterrorism is a top priority of the new Homeland Security Department, the focus of a new FBI division and the rallying cry for a booming new cybersecurity industry. Scenarios vary, with this basic premise: Evildoers halfway around the world hack into command and control computer networks here that control dams, factories, hospitals, power plants, air-traffic-control systems -- even amusement parks. To prevent such attacks, the federal government will spend $4.5 billion next year securing government computers, with private industry shelling out $13.6 billion to build up digital defenses.
It's easy to forget one simple fact: In the 13 years since Schwartau warned of an impending electronic catastrophe, not one single computer attack has been traced to a terrorist organization. The FBI, which now has some 1,000 dedicated "cyber-investigators," has never responded to a hack, virus or even a spam e-mail linked to a terrorist. What's more, cyberterrorism may not even be possible --computer experts say networked computers simply aren't capable of triggering the sorts of destruction described by cyberterror buffs.
That doesn't mean terrorists don't use computers, or that the Internet hasn't been a boon to thieves, pranksters, disgruntled workers and political activists. But computer crime is not cyberterrorism. And so far, anyway, our most dangerous and determined enemies -- al Qaeda or any of the 27 covert groups listed by the federal government as terrorist organizations -- appear only dimly aware of the arcane tricks of computer warfare that inspire such fever dreams in American computer geeks and policy wonks. The scant evidence that the sky is indeed falling -- heavy Web traffic from Indonesia, research on electronic-switching systems on al Qaeda laptops, rumors of master hackers among detainees in Guantanamo Bay -- might get pulses racing among fans of Tom Clancy. But it's hard to come away from any sober reality check without concluding that computers are less weapons of mass destruction than weapons of mass annoyance.
While popular scenarios are certainly cinematic -- cut to: Matthew Broderick bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war in WarGames -- the fact is that computers are a lot less connected or all-powerful than we might think. For one thing, most computer systems that control so-called critical infrastructures aren't even plugged in to the Internet. "There seems to be this perception you can log on to America Online, and if you know the right passwords, hack into the national power grid," says Douglas Thomas, a USC professor and author of two books on hacking and the policing of cyberspace. "People don't seem to realize that these aren't publicly accessible systems. Why would they be? Most sensitive military and government networks are completely shielded. A terrorist would have to be a ranking official in the military to get access to these networks -- and if that's happening, we've got way bigger problems than computer security to worry about."
But perhaps the main reason why cyberterrorism has remained more fiction than fact is that we Americans know more -- and care more -- about computers than any of our enemies. While most Westerners have trouble even recalling a time before e-mail, ATMs or cell phones, technology figures a lot less prominently in the lives of, say, the average Islamic fundamentalist. And so far, anyway, low-tech tools like bombs, bullets and box cutters have proved to be highly effective instruments for whipping up terror.
What's really going on then, suggests author Robert Young Pelton, is the latest outbreak of the techno jitters that brought us Y2K hysteria -- this time charged with the lingering shock of September 11. With a surplus of fear and a shortage of anything we can actually see, we've fused two of the most mysterious and incomprehensible forces of the modern age: technology and terrorism. It's the Red Scare of the information age, complete with invisible enemies, imminent doomsdays and massive government contracts.