Drop Code, Not Bombs: The Rise of Cyber Warfare

August 12, 2011 4:57 pm

Created content in the form of open source codes is the world’s latest – and perhaps most dangerous – weapon…

Picture the most powerful soldier in the world. You’ve probably got an image of a tanned, well-muscled, crew-cut American, standing tall in his battle fatigues, with thick black lines under his eyes and a utility belt to rival Batman’s around his waist. Maybe he’s a US Navy SEAL, involved in a highly classified operation to take down a terrorist target.

Effective as this Rambo-like individual in your head may be, he’s not even close to being the most powerful soldier in the modern world. So let’s revise the image…

Instead of battle fatigues, put him in a ‘Family Guy’ T-shirt. Take away the black lines underneath his eyes and replace them with black-framed spectacles. Change his body type to skinny and replace that crew cut with a shaggy, mop-like ’do. While you’re at it, swap ‘tanned’ with ‘hasn’t seen the sun since the Star Trek Convention of 99’.

Now you’ve got a much more realistic picture of the kind of ‘soldier’ who can do the most damage – or good – in the new era of cyber warfare, because hackers – or cyber security consultants, depending on which side of the fence you’re on – are the new front line.

Iran’s nuclear facilities ‘attacked’

In 2010, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who were reviewing surveillance footage from a Uranium Enrichment Facility in central Iran noticed an unusually high number of centrifuges being replaced by workers. According to Wired Magazine, the usual number of centrifuges replaced over a year in this kind of facility is around 800. The IAEA inspectors discovered that up to 2000 had been replaced in a few short months.

Eventually, it was revealed that the cause of the unusual activity was a complex computer worm known as Stuxnet. Thought to be the most sophisticated malware in the world, Stuxnet is a virus that infiltrates indiscriminately, but only activates when it comes into contact with Siemens Industrial software – the software used by, among others, Iran’s nuclear operations facilities.
ABC’s Hungry Beast created a fantastic video depicting the (r)evolution of the virus if you want to get up to speed:

So, just to recap: there’s a computer virus that is capable of taking down a nuclear power plant. No one knows who created it, although there are some strong leads (more on those shortly) and now Iran has invited hackers to join a cyber army and fiddle about with the open source code of the virus.

Oh, brother!

Is the US behind Stuxnet?

According to the UK Daily Telegraph, Tom Parker, a US-based security researcher who has spent months analysing the virus, believes two organisations are responsible for Stuxnet. Parker thinks a major power such as the US or UK would have to have been behind the design and development of Stuxnet due to its complexity ‘because they have both the scarce cyber expertise, and access to the tightly-regulated nuclear equipment necessary to test the virus’.

Parker also argues that the Iranian implementation actually sloppy and ‘rushed’, speculating that Israel could have been behind this ‘attack’. Indeed, a later Daily Telegraph article claims that a video celebrating the operational successes of the head of Israel’s Defence Forces at his retirement included responsibility for Stuxnet as a career highlight.

While the rumour mill may be spinning with speculation over who created Stuxnet, the more pressing issue is whether (if the US is responsible for its development) it has unwittingly (again) armed its enemy. The call from Iranian Brigadier General Gholam-reza Jalali (head of Iran’s Passive Resistance Organization) for ‘good intentioned, revolutionary’ hackers to join the cause and attack sites run by ‘Iran’s enemies’ shows just how dangerous an open-source-code virus such as Stuxnet can potentially be.

Either way, it seems the wars of the future will be fought online – through content.


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