Or cyber terror. In 1995, the first in a long series of warnings of an “electronic Pearl Harbor” was made. Although terrorists have launched many attacks since 1995, none has involved cyber terror.
The closest thing to a cyber attack occurred in Australia, when a disgruntled employee who had designed the computer system for a sewage treatment plant was able to penetrate the network after 49 consecutive attempts that went unnoticed and release raw sewage. The government report on the incident says this produced an unbearable smell for several days. Residents were unhappy, but able to control their terror.
Cyber terror was at first suspected in the 2003 Northeast blackout. The cause turned out to be incompetence and falling trees. The widespread blackout did not degrade U.S. military capabilities, did not damage the economy, and caused neither casualties nor terror.
One lesson to draw from this is that large, modern economies are hard to defeat. Their vulnerability — to cyber attack or dirty bombs or the other exotic weapons — is routinely exaggerated.
Yes, computer networks are vulnerable to attack, but nations are not equally vulnerable. Countries like the United States, with its abundance of services and equipment and the ability and experience in restoring critical functions, are well equipped to overcome an attack.
What explains this discrepancy between risk and perception?
When the cold war ended, the United States reassessed what kinds of threats it would face in the future. A series of influential commissions concluded that new kinds of opponents would use asymmetric attacks and unconventional weapons against the American homeland. They would attack vulnerable civilian targets, as no one could challenge the U.S. military and win.
This assessment proved, unfortunately, to be correct, but its corollary — that the new opponents would use unconventional weapons like cyber or bio — missed the mark.
There are important differences between experts and terrorists. Experts imagine exotic attack scenarios. Terrorists are conservative. They prefer guns and bombs.
Attacks using exotic, untried weapons are more likely to be detected, more difficult to carry out and may not even work.