Stuxnet, Flame and the future of cyber warfare

I came across an article on Russia Today recently that revealed more viruses in the vein of Flame and Stuxnet have been discovered. For those of you unaware, Stuxnet, Flame and their derivatives are computer viruses. However, these are not like the standard worms, spyware and viruses that infect the computers of unwary email readers or visitors to the seedier sections of the Internet.

Instead, these viruses are cutting edge military programs, developed to sabotage, undermine and even physically destroy the infrastructure of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, oil industries and other economic sectors.

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This is not like the assumed Chinese break-in of Google mail servers or Russian and Eastern European identity theft — whose acts could conceivably be considered the act of rogue civilians within the state.

The viruses we’re talking about here are clearly professionally designed and are so focused and specialized that there is no question they were created and deployed at the behest of a national entity. Specifically, it appears to be cooperation between Israel and the United States, as an article by the Washington Post revealed this summer.

This, of course, has the potential for large impacts on the world stage. Our own government considers acts of cyberterrorism and computer sabotage to be acts of war, allowing for physical retaliation to be justified in such an event.

This means that, short of admitting to following a double standard for world politics (not an unlikely scenario), our government — along with Israel — has essentially begun the first stages of declaring war on Iran.

Even if an official declaration never comes, the subtext is there. This opens the door for retaliation from Iran, be it a digital or physical attack — which could only further justify a physical, perhaps even pre-emptive strike from our own military.

This direct military application of software means more than just a further destabilization of relations between the United States, Israel and Iran though; it signifies the beginnings of a whole new type of warfare — one which no country is truly prepared for.

Large amounts of our country’s infrastructure runs on computers. Voting machines, Wall Street, traffic control systems, the electrical grid, Amazon, our banks. More likely than not if you can name something, it probably has part of its system running on a computer.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “as long as the machine isn’t connected to the Internet then there’s no way for hackers to get to it.” Wrong. The network that Stuxnex was designed to infiltrate was a closed network, completely off the grid of the Internet we know and love.

Buried underground, it would have been a ridiculous feat to plant an agent down there to manually infect the network. That’s why the developers of the virus figured out a way to get the virus to lie dormant until such a point that it was unknowingly transferred onto a USB flash drive which was then plugged into a computer on the supposedly closed network of the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. So, while machines not connected to Internet are less vulnerable than machines that are, they are not impregnable to outside influence.

While in the short term these operations have caused significant delays to Iranian infrastructure their long term impact is much more ominous. It is an indicator that the United States and its allies are willing to pursue incredibly reckless endeavours to establish their superiority on the world stage — which opens the door to other nation states or rogue political elements to engage in similar tactics against the United States.

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Chinese elements have already proven they are willing to hack into email accounts and information servers to gain an upper hand, so what’s to stop them from developing a virus that negatively impacts the electrical grid in California or D.C.? What’s stopping them from taking refrigeration units offline in major food warehouses or knocking out cell phone towers to destroy internal communication networks?

With increasingly complex and effective cyber warfare, we are looking at a brave new world — much like the aftermath of the first nuclear test. The genie is out of the bottle. In the words of Trinity test director of the Manhattan Project, Kenneth Bainbridge, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.”

Hamilton Reed is a senior computer science major. His columns appear Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.