Unpacking what cyber terrorism means

Stuart Macdonald unveils a major research project at Swansea University which is being given an airing this week

Cyber terrorism is likely to be a familiar, yet imprecise, concept to many readers. Although the term has been around for over twenty years, there remains no consensus amongst academics or policymakers on what it actually refers to or, indeed, how significant a threat it might pose.

Debate continues on whether the term refers to terrorism conducted via digital technologies, or to terrorism that is targeted at digital infrastructures. There is even disagreement over whether cyber terrorism has ever, actually, occurred, quite apart from what its future impacts might be. How one answers these questions, of course, has profound implications for a third important debate: how should states and other actors respond to the threat of cyber terrorism, if at all?

As an attempt to begin to provide answers last year Swansea University established a multidisciplinary research network on cyber terrorism, bringing together expertise from the physical sciences (engineering, computer science) and the social sciences (politics, international relations, law, criminology). Beyond its academic members, the project also hosts three postgraduate researchers and two paid interns. Research activities undertaken by this team include conducting a survey of the opinions of over 500 academics across the globe on cyber terrorism, and building a database of political, legal and other definitions of cyber terrorism to help explore key differences in approaches to this term across legal jurisdictions or political cultures.

This coming Thursday and Friday the project team will be hosting the first of two workshops scheduled for the 2012/13 academic year. This event, which will include invited speakers from Australia, Ireland and the UK as well as academics at Swansea, will be organised around the following three themes:

  • Understanding cyber terrorism Existing understandings of what cyber terrorism is will be examined by analysing political and legal definitions. There will be consideration of whether, and how, cyber terrorism is distinctive from other forms of terrorism. Relevant historical parallels to cyber terrorism will also be discussed, to investigate whether this is a genuinely distinctive phenomenon.
  • Assessing the threat of cyber terrorism Current and potential future threats of cyber terrorism will be examined, including discussion of how the threat can and should be measured. There will also be discussion of how the threat has been represented or constructed in public policy, law, popular culture and beyond. The potential targets of cyber terrorism and their associated risks will also be identified including, for example, political infrastructures, intelligence communities, and economic interests.
  • Responding to cyber terrorism The workshop’s third theme will offer a geographical and historical overview of responses to cyber-security challenges such as cyber terrorism, with discussion of resilience and capacity building and institutional responsibilities and challenges. Strategies for pursuing cyber terrorists will also be evaluated, including the evidential and jurisdictional difficulties with prosecution.

The papers will be collected together and published in a book edited by Swansea’s cyber terrorism project team. The workshop is funded by the University’s Bridging The Gaps programme. Supported by a £780,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the programme fosters and develops interdisciplinary research activity to deliver high-quality projects directed towards the global physical, economic and social challenges that face today’s modern world.

Stuart Macdonald is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Deputy Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice & Criminology at Swansea University. For more information on the cyber terrorism project, write to [email protected] or visit www.cyberterrorism-project.org/

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