Cyberterrorism: Definition, Potential, and Minimization of Its Dangers

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Mark M. Pollitt

FBI Laboratory

935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, D. C. 20535


This paper discusses the definition of cyberterrorism, its potential, and suggests an approach to the minimization of its’ dangers. The definition of cyberterrorism used in this paper is combines the United States Department of State’s definition of terrorism as politically motivated acts of violence against non-combatants with a definition of cyberspace as the computers, networks, programs and data which make up the information infrastructure. The conclusion is that by limiting the physical capabilities of the information infrastructure, we can limit it potential for physical destruction.


Terrorism, cyberspace, cyberterrorism, information infrastructure, computer security.


This paper was submitted by the author in connection with academic studies at George Washington University. It does not represent the policy, opinions, or conclusions of the United States Government or of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The opinions expressed herein are wholly that of the author.


by Mark M. Pollitt


“We are at risk. Increasingly, America depends on computers. They control power delivery, communications, aviation, and financial services. They are used to store vital information, from medical records to business plans to criminal records. Although we trust them, they are vulnerable - to the effects of poor design and insufficient quality control, to accident, and perhaps most alarmingly, to deliberate attack. The modern thief can steal more with a computer than with a gun. Tomorrow’s terrorist may be able to do more damage with a keyboard than with a bomb.”(1)

Thus began the opening chapter of one of the foundation books in the computer security field. This book, commissioned by the National Academy of sciences, was the product of twenty-one experts in their field and was a proposed blueprint for future computer security in the United States. In the six years since this was written, computers and information technology has exploded. But most people, including those in the computer field, believe the above statement to still be true.

The combination of two of the great fears of the late twentieth century are combined in the term “cyberterrorism”. The fear of random, violent victimization segues well with the distrust and outright fear of computer technology. Both capitalize on the fear of the unknown. It is easy to distrust that which one is not able to control.

Terrorism, with it’s roots in the periphery of mainstream society, is feared. It is perceived as being random, incomprehensible and uncontrollable. Groups with obscure names and origins impact catastrophically on the innocent. It is, in fact, designed to be feared. That is its real power.

Technology is feared from two perspectives. First, it is by definition arcane. It is complex, abstract and indirect in its impact on individuals. Because computers do things that used to be done by humans, there is a natural fear related to a loss of control. People believe, that technology has the ability to become the master, and humanity the servant.

The popular press has further fueled the fires by “hyping” the concept of convergence. According to the press, one is lead to believe that all of the functions controlled by individual computers will all converge into a singular system. Further support for this scenario is the increase in “connectivity”. Many people conclude that the entire world will soon be controlled by a single computer system.

Ironically, these same people subjectively understand that since computers are products of, and operated by, human beings, they are not reliable in either a mechanical or logical sense. Certainly, there can be no doubt as to immense benefits from computer technology. With any technology, be it telephones or...
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