Posted by: Debby Durkee | December 10, 2010

Cyber war — a reality today.

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Cyber war – a reality today.

We’ve all heard the whisperings of a worm that supposedly hit the Iranian nuclear program that has slowed down their progress. We’ve also recently been hit with the WikiLeaks story where Julian Assange and company have passed our national security secrets to news organizations worldwide after receiving them from Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old private in the Army stationed in Iraq. Manning simply downloaded them via a Defense Department database. We’re entering a strange new world where possibilities of cyber war aren’t just for science fiction novels, but are actually happening right now. Here’s some amazing information from a couple of great sources. This information will both amaze and frighten you.

The first Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) occurred during the 1980’s with guided munitions and advanced communications systems which acted as force multipliers. They got a workout during the first Gulf War under the first President Bush. The following is from J.R. Dunn of the American Thinker:

Most of the two-thirds of a million Coalition troops deployed in Saudi Arabia never engaged with enemy forces.  The Iraqis were defeated by a handful of spearhead units so technologically superior to the Warsaw Pact-type Iraqi units that there was no contest. Snip –

The second wave of RMAs has been astonishing and has revealed itself just recently.

…Utilizing communications and cybernetics innovations, the new combatants can, under the right circumstances, have an impact rivaling that of entire nation-states, causing serious turmoil and damage with a minimal outlay of effort.  In 2010, we have been introduced to this mutated form of warfare by two distinct events: Stuxnet and WikiLeaks.

Stuxnet is the trojan “malware”…infiltrated into Iranian nuclear weapons program infotech systems.  Its creators are unknown (for the record, I would surmise that these were the U.S. and Israel, the U.S. possessing the knowhow and the Israelis the espionage network).  Its effects have been substantial but as yet unquantified, and they may remain so.  One curiosity concerning the incident lies in the fact that damage estimates have continued to grow in the months since the worm was first discovered. Even Iranian strongman Ahmadinejad has, very much against his will, been forced to acknowledge the damage the program wrought.  The Iranian nuclear effort has not yet returned to normal operations.  Some question exists as to whether it can.

Much more here:

For an amazingly detailed look at Stuxnet, you can’t beat the write-up by Ed Barnes of Fox News. (You’ve got to wonder if he’s Fred’s son.)  It reads like a Tom Clancy novel:

The construction of the worm was so advanced, it was “like the arrival of an F-35 into a World War I battlefield,” says Ralph Langner, the computer expert who was the first to sound the alarm about Stuxnet. Others have called it the first “weaponized” computer virus.

Simply put, Stuxnet is an incredibly advanced, undetectable computer worm that took years to construct and was designed to jump from computer to computer until it found the specific, protected control system that it aimed to destroy: Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

The target was seemingly impenetrable; for security reasons, it lay several stories underground and was not connected to the World Wide Web. And that meant Stuxnet had to act as sort of a computer cruise missile: As it made its passage through a set of unconnected computers, it had to grow and adapt to security measures and other changes until it reached one that could bring it into the nuclear facility.

When it ultimately found its target, it would have to secretly manipulate it until it was so compromised it ceased normal functions.

And finally, after the job was done, the worm would have to destroy itself without leaving a trace.

That is what we are learning happened at Iran’s nuclear facilities — both at Natanz, which houses the centrifuge arrays used for processing uranium into nuclear fuel, and, to a lesser extent, at Bushehr, Iran’s nuclear power plant.

At Natanz, for almost 17 months, Stuxnet quietly worked its way into the system and targeted a specific component — the frequency converters made by the German equipment manufacturer Siemens that regulated the speed of the spinning centrifuges used to create nuclear fuel. The worm then took control of the speed at which the centrifuges spun, making them turn so fast in a quick burst that they would be damaged but not destroyed. And at the same time, the worm masked that change in speed from being discovered at the centrifuges’ control panel.

At Bushehr, meanwhile, a second secret set of codes, which Langner called “digital warheads,” targeted the Russian-built power plant’s massive steam turbine.

He goes on to give a step-by-step of how this worm worked. Since the Iranian system is not tied to the Internet, the worm had to be infiltrated into computers of the homes surrounding the nuclear facilities, and when a scientist would take work home and bring it back via a flash drive, Voila! The worm found its target and began its work. Many steps ensued. Here’s just a brief description of one of the later steps. Please go to the Fox News site for the rest of the amazing story.

–Masking itself from the plant’s security and other systems, the worm then ordered the centrifuges to rotate extremely fast, and then to slow down precipitously. This damaged the converter, the centrifuges and the bearings, and it corrupted the uranium in the tubes. It also left Iranian nuclear engineers wondering what was wrong, as computer checks showed no malfunctions in the operating system.

Estimates are that this went on for more than a year, leaving the Iranian program in chaos. And as it did, the worm grew and adapted throughout the system. As new worms entered the system, they would meet and adapt and become increasingly sophisticated.  Snip –

“The worm was designed not to destroy the plants but to make them ineffective. By changing the rotation speeds, the bearings quickly wear out and the equipment has to be replaced and repaired. The speed changes also impact the quality of the uranium processed in the centrifuges creating technical problems that make the plant ineffective,” (said Eric Byres, a computer security expert who has examined the Stuxnet.)

In other words the worm was designed to allow the Iranian program to continue but never succeed, and never to know why.

Read all of this amazing story here:

Mr. Dunn of the American Thinker website leaves us all with much to ponder – what next?

A cyber warhead of this sophistication represents an evolution even more profound than the introduction of ironclads in the Civil War or aircraft in WWI.  What this means in immediate terms is a constant, continual cyberwar on the Cold War espionage model. Adversaries will endlessly probe potential enemies (not to mention friends) to discover weaknesses and pry out secrets.  (The behavior of China over the past few years suggests that this state of affairs is already the case.)

The first strike in any war from here on in will be cybernetic, in hopes of paralyzing an enemy’s armed forces and shattering his society.  Under these circumstances, the most important military figure in sense of pure national defense will be the cybertechnician, much as the missile launch officer was the most crucial during the Cold War. The American military need a bottom-up evaluation of its entire military IT system, including training, doctrine, and practice, to assure that we are capable of addressing this challenge.  Such an action can’t be expected from the current administration, preoccupied as it is with such critical matters as eliminating DADT and assuring that military vehicles use their fair share of ethanol.  But it should be the first thing on the agenda when an adult administration again takes office.  The survival of the United States as a superpower depends on it.

As we with home computers know from personal experience on a smaller scale, computer worms, viruses, identity theft rings — there’s much out there in the Wild West of the Internet that goes on without our knowing. Let’s hope that with adults in charge in Congress, and hopefully in the presidency in a couple of years, we will be addressing the latest form of warfare that could take down power plants, water processing plants, ships, airplanes, cars, and anything else that is technology driven. The United States is constantly under attack, and this new form of warfare can hit us where it really hurts and could bring this society down to third nation status over night. The future is now.

Mr. Dunn goes on in great detail in his column about WikiLeaks and its potential and what is portends for the future as well. Please read him here:


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  1. Great article! With all this technology, how far away is the war between machines and humans?

  2. I think I’m at war with machines everyday! 🙂 Amazing happenings — it’s difficult to keep up with it all!

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