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Cyberterrorism is not a universal excuse

Cyberterrorism is being used as a reason for unfettered government action. Evidence, please

Hacking could be used for terrorism, said FBI deputy assistant director Steve Martinez at a seminar in Miami on Wednesday. People have to assume, he told us, that terrorists will use hackers to "raise money, aid command and control, spread terrorist propaganda and recruit more into their ranks and, lastly and most ominously, attack at little risk".

Scared yet? While it's very true that terrorists could use hacking to further their aims -- these are not people to be deterred by the Computer Misuse Act -- they could also raise money by talking to rich backers and sympathetic communities. Command and control? Haven't we been told that terrorists are so sophisticated they know not to use electronic communications? Don't we want them on the Net, where we can most easily trace them? As for propaganda -- well, true, you can hack into places and leave rude messages. Or you can just dispatch the odd videotape to TV stations. Terrorists, like the rest of us, do things the easy way.

Which leaves that "attack at little risk". Terrorism is about destruction and death, about spreading fear. Even Internet Explorer can't do that. You can annoy, you can steal, you can even scare -- isn't that right, Martinez? -- but you cannot directly harm. 'Could' in this context means next to nothing: it does not mean 'will', it barely means 'can'.

The FBI is not stupid. It knows all this. That's why Martinez tells us to "assume" that list of dangers instead of presenting evidence (we assume there is none). We must believe. Otherwise, how can the Indymedia seizure be sanctioned? A server in the UK is taken by Americans operating on behalf of an unnamed third government, and we can't even know who or why – because to know would be to jeopardise an 'ongoing criminal terrorism investigation'.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Would terrorists do anything on a service dedicated to public dissent -- a place guaranteed to be on the Favorites (sic) list of half the browsers in Washington and GCHQ? But no, we must not ask such questions. The service provider is muzzled by law, the Web site operators have no legal status, and as for us ordinary peons -- our role is to silently acquiesce and thank the nice man for keeping us from harm.

We beg to differ. Those in charge of guarding our safety must be careful not to cry wolf too often, nor to take too many liberties with our freedoms. Otherwise, we could easily assume that the threat of cyberterrorism is being used to excuse political and legal misdeeds. We're keeping an eye on the evidence: the forces of law and order should feel free to provide as much as they like.