There have been hints of the power of software assassins to wreak havoc with the world’s computer grid of the past twenty years. These have produced more hysteria than actual damage – the Love virus and the Y2K event, to name a few. Something new and more ominous has presented itself in Iran recently, and across the world software experts are in awe of its sophisticated and cyber-lethal capacity. The apparent spectacular damage it created to delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions has far exceeded the world’s tepid efforts at embargo and sanction. What seemed to be a minor bump in the road may turn out to be a critical intervention that will allow a sufficient “breather” in the battle to prevent the theocratic and apocolyptic elements of the Iranian dictatorship from living out their anti-Zionist fantasies. The cyber-weapon of note is known as STUXNET, and the world is just getting to realize the power and potential trouble such technology holds for what has become for all of us a basic staple of life, the computer.
As the weeks extend from the cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, the information regarding STUXNET becomes more cloak and dagger with every piece of evolving information. A transfer of the virus was achieved into facilities with the highest security and no outside Internet access. The virus was so sophisticated that it achieved the control of the critical centrifuges causing them to spin at high and damaging speeds without any monitor showing an aberrant function, sufficient to damage the fragile and sophisticated machinery without anyone the wiser, the virus then hiding without a trace and waiting for new sites to proliferate and destroy. By the time Iranian scientists realized the damage, the ability to produce the enriched uranium required for atomic weaponry appears to have been significantly set back, and may require Iran to again attempt to obtain the components of the centrifuges from countries who may no longer have the capacity or desire to give them access to the precision equipment .
The question as to who is capable of such sophisticated software capacity, and a recognition of the thousands of man-hours needed to produce such a sophisticated cyber weapon leads inevitably to nation states. The Cold War was fought by stealth warriors on both sides, whose exploits were popularized in spy novels and Bond movies. The ‘Bond spys’ were special warriors with special technology not available to the rest of us, designed to protect their nation’s interests and roust out evil plots with all of us being none the wiser in our daily existence. The realities of STUXNET suggest intelligence agencies of the highest order. The Iranians with their hatred and paranoia suspect Israel. The incredible sophistication of the weapon and its military nature could easily implicate the western intelligence services from the U.S., France, United Kingdom, or Russia. The reality could be some combination of all of the above given the obvious interests all would have in seeing Iran not being successful in its nuclear ambitions.
STUXNET has created a new reality and perhaps a new cold war weapon. In the days of the cold war the fear was nuclear holocaust and we were all trained at school to seek shelter under our desks in case of attack, however ludicrous the level of protection that may have offered. Now we will have to learn to hide from what is on our desks, as we note the capacity to turn off our communications, our power, our commerce, our lights, and our way of life may just have annouced its first ominous presence on earth.