Intelligence: July 2, 2002

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The recent alert that the United States was threatened by a cyberwar attack was sparked by an alert webmaster for a town in California's Silicon Valley. Before September 11, 2001, Mountain View's Web Site Coordinator Laura Wigod, noticed that the town web site was getting a lot of visits from web users in the Middle East. The visitors seemed interested in details of the town's water system, utilities and police department. After September 11, 2001, she reported this to the local police. Being in Silicon Valley, the police had web savvy police officers to handle net related offenses and they quickly confirmed Wigod's observations. The police alerted the FBI and the feds proceeded to ask around. They found over 30 other cities that had experienced a similar pattern before and after September 11, 2001. The visitors were traced back to telecommunications switches in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Items being studied included emergency telephone systems, electrical
generation and transmission, water storage and distribution, nuclear power plants and fuel storage and distribution facilities. But what set off the alarm bells in Washington were those Internet visitors looking for information about systems that allow remote control (via the web) for tasks like dispatching fire trucks or controlling pipelines and dams. What few people outside the government knew was that some of the al Qaeda laptops captured in Afghanistan contained information about getting to these control web sites and manipulating them. Some of these control systems allow one to manage power distribution, or railroad traffic, over a wide area. A terrorist could trigger blackouts, shut down pipelines and phone systems or cause multiple railroad accidents if he knows how to crack into these sites and effectively manipulate the controls. In the past, these remote control systems were not on the web, but required users to call an unlisted number (often only from a specific list of phone numbers) and use special communications software to do it. But to save money, many of these systems have been moved to the web. The designers of these web sites insist that they are as secure as the old systems. That may be true, because some of the old systems have been compromised (by criminals, not foreign terrorists.) The FBI, NSA and CIA are increasing their monitoring of the Internet in an attempt to get advanced warning of such attacks, and some information on who is planning them. Al Qaeda does not have a lot of Internet talent, but they have approached professional hackers (known to work for criminal organizations) for help. It's not known if any was received, for while professional hackers want to make money, they don't want to end the world-as-we-know-it. This would be really bad for business. Getting caught working for terrorists would also be a career ending event.

 


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