US Terrorism Law ‘Unprepared’ for Cyber Threat: Paper

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Foreign organizations that threaten U.S. economic, governmental, and social infrastructure through cybersabotage should be classified as “terrorist” to give authorities the same powers to intervene and combat their activities that they have against violent terror groups, says a forthcoming article in the Indiana Law Journal.

The article, written by Patrick Keenan, an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, argues that the change is necessary in response to “a new and potentially devastating type of conflict for which U.S. law is unprepared.”

According to Keenan, Russian cyber efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election were just one example of the kinds of threats that require updating government counter-terrorist policy. In the same year, hackers said to be affiliated with the Russian government broke into the laptop of a Vermont electricity company official and installed malicious code.

Overseas, Russian hackers targeted the Ukraine power grid in the midst of a conflict between Kiev and Moscow, and caused a power outage affecting 225,000 people. Other countries such as North Korea and Iran have similarly been held responsible for major acts of cybersabotage against the U.S.

The ability to designate groups responsible for such acts as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) would give the government greater tools to intervene as soon as there is evidence that such acts are being planned—rather than respond after the damage has been done, Keenan wrote.

The FTO designation is made by the authority of the Secretary of State under the authority of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and allows the government to act against individuals deemed to be affiliated or providing “material support” to a terrorist group.

Unlike traditional terror organizations, groups conducting cyberterrorism often comprise loose teams of freelancer rather than an identifiable collection of armed combatants, Keenan pointed out.

The narrow definition of terror groups under current U.S. law as those who threaten violence, however, hampers the government’s ability to confront the newer threats, Keenan argued.

“Violence is not the only means by which these new terrorists can attempt to exert coercive force over political leaders or disrupt the lives of civilians,” said the paper.

“The harms caused by electoral interference are similar in kind and magnitude to those associarted with events—like bombings or attacks by gunmen—that have long fitted comfortably within the definition of terrorism,” Keenan added, noting that disrupting elections causes civilians to question the legitimacy of their government.

The complete article can be downloaded here.

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