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The Arms Race of the Century

Binyamin Rose

It’s is not surprising that culpability for the Stuxnet worm that disrupted computer operations in Iran’s nuclear facilities has landed at Israel’s doorstep. How likely is it that Israel fired this latest shot in the cyber-wars of the twenty-first century? Are there other possible culprits? And if it was Israel, did they do anything wrong? Is there a code of ethics for cyber-warfare?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stuxnet

Acts of sabotage are hardly new to warfare. Germany used sabotage during World War I to disrupt American supply lines to Europe, even before the US declared war on Germany. President Ronald Reagan, architect of the 1980s “Star Wars” defense system, used sabotage as an offensive tool, approving a covert CIA plan to transfer technology and software with hidden malfunctions to blow up a Soviet gas pipeline.

It took almost twenty-five years to blow the CIA's cover on that operation. The only reason it became common knowledge was that Thomas C. Reed, a former US secretary of the Air Force, revealed the CIA's involvement in his Cold War memoir, At the Abyss.

One of the ironies of the world of cyber-warfare is that those who are the most proficient and diabolical at invading the privacy of others guard their own privacy as if their lives depend on it -- and it probably does. So don't expect anyone to spill the beans soon on who actually devised and introduced the Stuxnet worm into Iranian computer systems, effectively paralyzing an estimated 30,000 PCs and causing communication disruptions and technical malfunctions at several Iranian nuclear facilities.

But unlike previous historical uses of sabotage and covert operations, Stuxnet is groundbreaking, says Sean Noonan, a tactical analyst for Stratfor Global Intelligence.

“It is really the first cyber-weapon designed to physically attack a hard target,” he says. “The Stuxnet worm is designed to spread through computer networks and communicate with a command-and-control server. Whoever perpetrated this must have had very good intelligence on whatever they were targeting. And the way it spread indicates the involvement of an outside agency, or an intelligence service.”

Mr. Noonan considers Israel to be a likely perpetrator. Both the Mossad and IDF Intelligence have highly developed cyber-warfare units, and Israel also has a large pool of civilian information technology engineers. The fact that Israel views Iranian nuclear weapons production as an existential threat is another valid reason for assuming Israel pulled the cyber-trigger.

 

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