What are the real risks of cyberterrorism?

Tuesday, 27 August 2002, 10:15 AM EST

In 1998, a 12-year-old hacker broke into the computer system that controlled the floodgates of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, according to a June Washington Post report. If the gates had been opened, the article added, walls of water could have flooded the cities of Tempe and Mesa, whose populations total nearly 1 million. There was just one problem with the account: It wasn’t true.

A hacker did break into the computers of an Arizona water facility, the Salt River Project in the Phoenix area. But he was 27, not 12, and the incident occurred in 1994, not 1998. And while clearly trespassing in critical areas, the hacker never could have had control of any dams—leading investigators to conclude that no lives or property were ever threatened.

“It’s like the children’s game of ‘telephone,’” said Gail Thackery, assistant attorney general for Arizona and the prosecutor on the Salt River hacking case. “You get the reality at one end and, at the other end, something completely different.”

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