When we talk about cyberterrorism, it isn’t always immediately clear what we mean by it. Cyberterrorism could refer to a terrorist group using computer systems to attack air traffic control rooms and endanger flight systems; causing planes to crash, killing the passengers on board and causing large-scale damage to planes, runways, terminal buildings or other crash sites. Alternately, a cyberterrorist attack could be one in which terrorists use their laptops to hack into the stock exchange, crashing the market and causing untold economic damage.
What about when terrorist groups use hacking techniques in order to deface websites? Cyberterrorism. What about online forums dedicated to extremist views and violent ideologies? Cyberterrorism. Fundraising for terrorist groups through the internet? Cyberterrorism. Using unsecured wifi to send emails threatening a terrorist atrocity? You guessed it, cyberterrorism.
With cyberterrorism potentially covering such a wide spectrum of activities, it is fairly easy to understand why a complex and often confusing lexicon of cyber terminology has emerged in attempts to classify specific types of cyberterrorism, and to differentiate these from other possible uses of digital technology. .For that reason, terms such as “cyber warfare”, “information warfare”, “cyber crime”, “hacktivism”, “cyber espionage”, “cyber jihad”, “cyber sabotage”, “cyber vandalism”, “cyber dissidence”, “cyber militarism”, “cracktivism” and “pure cyberterrorism” have emerged as labels that cover an array of internet enabled and dependant terrorist, state and civilian activity.
So what term do you use when describing a specific type of cyberterrorist attack? Usually the best way to discover that is to look at what everyone else is doing – and that raises the second question of this blog. What terms do academics choose to use – and what terms do they purposefully avoid?
Fortunately, my PhD supervisors and colleagues in the Cyberterrorism Project, Dr Lee Jarvis and Dr Stuart Macdonald, have recently been working on these questions, and this weekend published the results of their study. You can read it for free here in the excellent open source journal ‘Perspectives on Terrorism’. If the editors of this journal are reading, in addition to this blog, I am willing to use my body as a billboard, so feel free to send me a couple of t-shirts!
I’m not going to use this blog to provide a critical analysis of the journal article. My relationship with the authors would prevent me from being completely without bias – and imagine how awkward it would be if I said something rude. I’d never make it to my viva! Having said that, I do believe that the study is an important one with some very interesting results (and I’m not just saying that, honest!) My plan is to summarise some of the findings of this article in the hope that it will encourage you to download and read it yourself in order to conduct your own critical analysis – and also in the hope that Stuart and Lee will read this, and remember that I said nice things about their work the next time I submit a draft chapter…
So, the study was conducted in late 2012 when the Cyberterrorism Project sent a survey to over 600 academic researchers who work within the fields of terrorism and cyberterrorism. Participants were identified through their publications on cyberterrorism; recommendations from researchers that had already returned the survey; and, from the use of two mailing lists, which you should join if you’re interested in terrorism studies. They are the Terrorism and Political Violence Association and the British International Studies Association Critical Terrorism Studies Working Group. (Again, t-shirts would be great, guys. Or maybe a branded mug. Whatever you’ve got lying about. It’s cool.) 118 academics responded to the study, answering questions on defining terrorism and cyberterrorism, the threat posed by cyberterrorism, responses to cyberterrorism, and, assessments of current research into cyberterrorism. For the full results, you can download Cyberterrorism: A Survey of Researchers here.
This paper focused on questions 8 and 9 of the survey – the experiences that academics had with certain terms and if they purposefully avoided any. Participants were also given space with which to expand on their answers, if necessary. The results for question 8 can be found below.
The journal, of course, goes on to discuss the answers to these questions in much greater detail and provides a far higher level of analysis than I am able to in this blog post. If I’ve piqued your interest, why not read it over?
You can read the journal article here.
You can download Perspectives on Terrorism here.
You can find out more about the Cyberterrorism Project here.