Prospect of Iraq conflict raises new cyberattack fears

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.

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 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (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 U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)'s National Infrastructure Protection Center.

The real change associated with such a widespread cyberconflict is the likely expansion of the types of hacker targets, said John Pescatore, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. In addition to government and military networks, a U.S. invasion of Iraq would likely lead to the targeting of news media organizations, said Pescatore.

"Given how media-savvy the Middle East has become, I'd expect to see the large newspaper and television news sites targeted for both propaganda-planting and denial-of-service attacks," he said.

A global cyberconflict is also likely to affect companies that are considered American cultural icons, such as Microsoft Corp., American Airlines Inc., McDonald's Corp. and other multinational companies known for their U.S. roots, said Pescatore.

"Since Sept. 11, companies have had to re-examine the various types of crises that can impact them, from bioterrorism to computer terrorism," said Steve Wilson, president of The Wilson Group, a crisis management consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "However, it's not just the typical hacker they have to be concerned with now. They can just as easily be a terrorist target as any government installation."

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