I don’t know how much you can remember of 2010 but with regards to cyber-crime the ‘Stuxnet’ computer worm was by far the most influential, not just because of the damage that it had caused but also because it’s use hailed the dawn of a new age in warfare.
However not a massive amount was ever discovered about its origins despite intensive research by some of the best computer labs in the world, but it was claimed last week that it was in fact designed by American and Israeli experts, something that says a lot about how cyber-war is developing.
You may not recognise the name ‘Stuxnet’ but you really should as it’s the Spitfire of its class – it is the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever made (that we know of anyway) and was used to cripple uranium enrichment plants across Iran last year, and caused so much damage that it is estimated it put the country 5 years behind in their nuclear arms race – somewhat more serious that simply having a dead computer and dealing with backups in your own home!
How the worm worked was actually quite simple (and you may in fact have it on your computer right now) and not too dissimilar from your standard malware: once onto a computer it will then seek out Siemens WinCC and PSC7 programmes, and if it cannot find them it will spread to other computers on the network and repeat the same search.
Once it has found a computer with said software – which you may have guessed is what the Iranian facilities use – it then injects code into the programme thus altering the function of the programme; in this case it cause the spinning rotors in the centrifuge to speed up so much that they destroyed them whilst at the same time sending out signals to make it falsely appear that everything is running fine. This worked so well that roughly 1,000 of them which is about a fifth of the total number were destroyed before the alarm was raised as to the issue.
There are deep rooted political ramifications and reasons behind this (which I won’t go into, although the fact that apparently they built an exact replica of the plants in a desert in Israel is pretty cool) but the issue that is worth focusing on is that this is a completely different type of warfare – it is in fact suggested that this development was prompted by the Israelis requesting bunker-busting bombs to destroy the facilities, with the US deciding on a more covert method of sabotaging the plants.
So what does this mean? It means the militarisation of the Internet is moving faster than perhaps most people realise. If countries are capable of taking down uranium enrichment plants using just code, then could we not see more damaging attacks (taking down real power stations, nuclear meltdowns, transport systems etc) in the future, and could they be the new frontier of war?
With regards to the countries involved it is one of the worst kept secrets that that the US are putting a lot of money into it (although it is still behind ‘space’ as a military domain) but they are followed by France, India, Britain and (oddly) Israel along with some slightly more worrying countries in the form of China and Russia. Of course places like North Korea may be even more advanced, but they haven’t shown it yet.
The upshot of all of this is that we should perhaps be putting more of a focus on cyber-war, or more importantly how to defend against it. Whilst the £650million currently being pledged in the latest defence review is a sizable amount, it is nothing compared to the numbers being spent on conventional weaponry which could well be rendered useless by effective cyber-war tactics.
Maybe a complete rethink is needed, but we shall have to wait and see. Hopefully this will make the problem a little more of a reality, but unfortunately we may need a ‘homeland’ attack before that becomes likely!
Via – Guardian