Jason Mick (Blog) - March 5, 2012 5:37 PM
Source code could be adapted to break factories, power grids, the sewage system, and other critical utilities
For as much as the U.S. is maligned for being oft victimized by internet aggressors -- some of whom are mere high school age children -- the nation is believed to have conducted one very audacious and surprising effective (to an extent) cyber black ops in history.
I. StuxNet -- The U.S.'s Most Danger Cyber "Black Op"
In June 2010, security experts found a new type of worm -- the phrase commonly used to refer to a self-spreading malicious computer program. They dubbed it "Stuxnet".
But unlike most worms, which try to accumulate a stockpile of infected machines for spamming, Bitcoin mining, or distributed denial of service purposes, Stuxnet was disinterested in doing anything malicious to most of the machines it was infecting. Rather, it just wanted to spread, inching towards its true target -- Iran.
In fact, it was aimed at a very specific target in Iran -- the nation's secretive nuclear refining facilities. And after infecting over 60,000 personal computers in Iran, it reached the facilities.
The U.S. and Israeli reportedly used a computer virus to sabotage Iran's growing nuclear program -- a halfway successful effort that did wreak some havoc at Iran's processing facilities. [Image Source: CBS]
In the summer of 2010 it spun hundreds of centrifuges -- produced by German electronics giant Siemens -- to their breaking points. It was a major setback for Iran's nuclear program. Unsurprisingly Iran -- which insists that its nuclear program was intended for peaceful and not weapons-making purposes -- was quick to lash out at "Western spies" for the sabotage effort.
But details that have emerged since have proved that their is likely truth in those claims, as evidence points to the U.S. and Israeli jointly developing the malware, possibly with other allies.
II. Mission Success? Or a Darker Reality?
Stuxnet seemed a very effective attack -- even if the eventual implication of U.S. and Israeli involvement was a public relation setback for the alleged authors. But ultimately, it did not succeed in permanently destroying Iran's nuclear program. Today the U.S. believes that Iran not only has nuclear power -- it is thought to be close to possessing one or more nuclear weapons.
The attack failed to stop Iran's nuclear efforts. Worse yet, researchers fear the worm's source could be turned against its authors. [Image Source: TechTear]
And Iran -- the greatest tech power in the Middle East outside of Israel -- showed itself to be growing increasingly sophisticated in digital efforts, downing a U.S. unmanned drone in a recent high-profile embarrassment. (President Obama requested the drone be returned, Iran mocked him by sending toy replicas.)
And aside from not truly achieving its intended long-term effect, the decision to release Stuxnet may have much more dire consequences. The source code for the worm has recently been decompiled and is floating around on hacker sites, according to a new 60 Minutes report by CBS Corp. (CBS).
III. War 2.0: U.S. May See Its Own Source Code Turned Against it
In its primetime special, CBS reporters argue that releasing the worm may have been akin to Pandora of Greek mythology opening a box that let loose chaos and destruction into her world. The report states that various groups ranging from independent malicious hackers to white hat security researchers to foreign intelligence agencies are all racing to adapt the highly virulent, highly successful worm for use in new attacks.
Such attacks could destroy machinery at sewage plants, electrical grid locations, traffic signals, or other applications. Such critical infrastructure often is air-gapped, but is sensitive to connections during routine maintenance. As the air-gapping (not having a physical internet connection to the outside world) gives a traditional sense of security, these types of devices may have less robust security mechanisms, and hence be more vulnerable to mechanical or electrical overdriving.
CBS News Videos
Only time will tell whether a Stuxnet variant will come back to bite the U.S. But given the success of Anonymous, LulzSec, and other hacker collectives in openly defying and attacking the U.S. government digitally, it's not infeasible to imagine such groups looking to cripple vital U.S. infrastructure in the near future. Or alternatively, hostile nations like Iran or North Korea could return fire, using the U.S. and Israel's own code against them.
|"Come out from man foul spirit.|
What is thy name?"
And he said unto him,
"Our name is legion, for we are many."
Gospel of Mark, 5 - 8
|Patriotism is your conviction|
that your country is
superior to all others because
you were born in it.
George Bernard Shaw