Cyberwar against Iran

The New York Times reports on an Israeli-American collaboration that apparently created a computer worm that may have set back Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon for years.  You’ve got to read this story.  A sample:

Behind Dimona’s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms. . . .

Though American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program. . . .

In interviews over the past three months in the United States and Europe, experts who have picked apart the computer worm describe it as far more complex — and ingenious — than anything they had imagined when it began circulating around the world, unexplained, in mid-2009. . . .

The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

via Stuxnet Worm Used Against Iran Was Tested in Israel – NYTimes.com.

HT:  tODD

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    A story I read a month ago(wish I could remember where) said the Stuxnet virus was so advanced that it was like unleashing a modern jet on the WWI battlefield.
    Glad to know our “friends” are looking ahead, and taking “proactive” non military action against some of these renegade countries.

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    A story I read a month ago(wish I could remember where) said the Stuxnet virus was so advanced that it was like unleashing a modern jet on the WWI battlefield.
    Glad to know our “friends” are looking ahead, and taking “proactive” non military action against some of these renegade countries.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes. The story I linked to said that the Stuxnet virus did spread all over the world, but experts were confused because it didn’t do anything to the computers it infected. Then they found that it was tailored to a specific configuration of specific devices, to the point of affecting 984 machines. Iran had 984 centrifuges, which it had to shut down due to their spinning themselves to the point of destruction.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes. The story I linked to said that the Stuxnet virus did spread all over the world, but experts were confused because it didn’t do anything to the computers it infected. Then they found that it was tailored to a specific configuration of specific devices, to the point of affecting 984 machines. Iran had 984 centrifuges, which it had to shut down due to their spinning themselves to the point of destruction.

  • http://puttingoutthefire.blogspot.com/ Frank Gillespie

    Patrick, I think the article you are referring to is this one: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/11/26/secret-agent-crippled-irans-nuclear-ambitions/

  • http://puttingoutthefire.blogspot.com/ Frank Gillespie

    Patrick, I think the article you are referring to is this one: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/11/26/secret-agent-crippled-irans-nuclear-ambitions/

  • WebMonk

    Hey, how about a bit of love for our US programmers? Israel didn’t make that on their own!

    The code on that sucker is way more than I can tease apart on my own, but I’ve seen some in-depth analysis and it is indeed a thing of beauty. It’s a perfect example of the best planning, development, and testing of cyber warfare code.

    Most of the viruses running around the net these days are pretty hacked together (though that is changing) and only infect things that have large and negligent security holes. Stuxnet was one of the first (and far and away the best so far) to be a serious attack program designed to break through a hardened computer system.

    Has anyone around here ever played any Shadowrun? That’s exactly what I envision this thing doing!

  • WebMonk

    Hey, how about a bit of love for our US programmers? Israel didn’t make that on their own!

    The code on that sucker is way more than I can tease apart on my own, but I’ve seen some in-depth analysis and it is indeed a thing of beauty. It’s a perfect example of the best planning, development, and testing of cyber warfare code.

    Most of the viruses running around the net these days are pretty hacked together (though that is changing) and only infect things that have large and negligent security holes. Stuxnet was one of the first (and far and away the best so far) to be a serious attack program designed to break through a hardened computer system.

    Has anyone around here ever played any Shadowrun? That’s exactly what I envision this thing doing!

  • SKPeterson

    My only concern is this: what if Iran did the same thing to us, say by buying some Chinese code on the international cyberwarfare market? We would (I hope not literally, but probably close) go ballistic – we would call it an outrage, a deliberate provocation, a violation of international law, and a pretext for war, cyber or conventional. Cool technology, but it can definitely be a double-edged sword. Are we prepared to go to war because some country inserts a virus into Duke Energy’s computer systems that then leads to a partial shutdown of their grid and crippling a sizable swath of the nation?

    As to international law, I’ve read that the use of this type of virus actually violates portions of the NNPT – to which Iran and the U.S., but tellingly, not Israel, are party. My guess is that this is almost entirely a U.S. operation, but launched from Israel in order to provide plausible deniability and a technical non-violation of the treaty.

  • SKPeterson

    My only concern is this: what if Iran did the same thing to us, say by buying some Chinese code on the international cyberwarfare market? We would (I hope not literally, but probably close) go ballistic – we would call it an outrage, a deliberate provocation, a violation of international law, and a pretext for war, cyber or conventional. Cool technology, but it can definitely be a double-edged sword. Are we prepared to go to war because some country inserts a virus into Duke Energy’s computer systems that then leads to a partial shutdown of their grid and crippling a sizable swath of the nation?

    As to international law, I’ve read that the use of this type of virus actually violates portions of the NNPT – to which Iran and the U.S., but tellingly, not Israel, are party. My guess is that this is almost entirely a U.S. operation, but launched from Israel in order to provide plausible deniability and a technical non-violation of the treaty.

  • Cincinnatus

    SKPeterson@5: “blahblahblah”

    Undoubtedly, someone has to step in to disagree, if only nominally, but is anyone really upset that non-violent methods have been employed to prevent what is effectively a rogue nation from joining the nuclear club? Really SKPeterson? If China or another “enemy” employs hostile code against our electronic infrastructure, the United States would indeed be upset, as well they should be, and as Iran presumably has been. But that doesn’t mean the two circumstances are morally or strategically equivalent. As someone whom Porcell often derides as a “heartland isolationist” (whatever that means), even I think some good has been done in the world by this virus. I’m circumspect about technology generally, but Stuxnet or something like it is going to happen; I’d rather something good result than bad (i.e., the atomic bomb was going to happen; considering the circumstances, I’m glad it was employed to end a terrible war than to start one).

  • Cincinnatus

    SKPeterson@5: “blahblahblah”

    Undoubtedly, someone has to step in to disagree, if only nominally, but is anyone really upset that non-violent methods have been employed to prevent what is effectively a rogue nation from joining the nuclear club? Really SKPeterson? If China or another “enemy” employs hostile code against our electronic infrastructure, the United States would indeed be upset, as well they should be, and as Iran presumably has been. But that doesn’t mean the two circumstances are morally or strategically equivalent. As someone whom Porcell often derides as a “heartland isolationist” (whatever that means), even I think some good has been done in the world by this virus. I’m circumspect about technology generally, but Stuxnet or something like it is going to happen; I’d rather something good result than bad (i.e., the atomic bomb was going to happen; considering the circumstances, I’m glad it was employed to end a terrible war than to start one).

  • SKPeterson

    LOL Cincinnatus – I also think this is preferable to using military force; I was just thinking about the implications for cyber war in general. There is a great western, “The Violent Men,” starring Glenn Ford and Edward G. Robinson, in which Robinson’s character threatens Ford and Ford responds along the lines of “Anything you can do on my land, I can do on yours, and you have a whole lot more to lose than I do.”

    I am assuming that we have significant cyber defense assets in place to counter any potential threats, but this does create the conditions for a thriving black market in cyber war coding. The implications are curious.

    We also have the implicit case of the Israeli tail wagging the U.S. dog which is troubling enough if we are going to go adventuring around the Middle East making new friends.

  • SKPeterson

    LOL Cincinnatus – I also think this is preferable to using military force; I was just thinking about the implications for cyber war in general. There is a great western, “The Violent Men,” starring Glenn Ford and Edward G. Robinson, in which Robinson’s character threatens Ford and Ford responds along the lines of “Anything you can do on my land, I can do on yours, and you have a whole lot more to lose than I do.”

    I am assuming that we have significant cyber defense assets in place to counter any potential threats, but this does create the conditions for a thriving black market in cyber war coding. The implications are curious.

    We also have the implicit case of the Israeli tail wagging the U.S. dog which is troubling enough if we are going to go adventuring around the Middle East making new friends.

  • Porcell

    What underlies all of this is that the U.S., Israel, and Germany have moved out ahead of the whole world in the development and capital funding of electronic hardware and software.

    The American who has the best handle on this is George Gilder whose book, The Israel Test, explains the important role of Jewish scientists in the Twentieth Century and the present century in both science and technology. Both Germany and the Soviet Union have suffered greatly from driving Jewish scientists and engineers to the U.S. and Israel.

    For a decent introduction to this subject, read Gilder’s City Journal article Silicon Israel How market capitalism saved the Jewish state including:

    Israelis are also leaders in arguably the most important technology arena today, particularly for military uses. This is the ability of computers using parallelism to sense, accept, and process information as quickly as modern transmission techniques—especially fiber-optics lines—can deliver it. A representative device in this effort, and a powerful symbol of Israel’s leading position in Internet technology, is the “network processor.” Just as a Pentium microchip is the microprocessor that makes most PCs work, the network processor is the device that makes the next-generation Internet work, doing the vital routing and switching at network nodes. The next-generation Internet will allow “petaflops” (1015 floating-point operations per second) of real-time computational power to be deployed to virtually any point on the earth. The network processor will let any desktop computer access data and processing power exponentially greater than that incorporated in any PC or any single corporate data center.

    America has a vital interest in keeping good relations with Israel, as in the long run it will likely become the leading economic and political player in a more democratic Middle East. Some thoughtful Arabs understand that Israel could lead the Middle East in economic and educational development. It could, also, be of great benefit to the U.S. in what will likely be a fateful intellectual, political, and economic struggle with China.

  • Porcell

    What underlies all of this is that the U.S., Israel, and Germany have moved out ahead of the whole world in the development and capital funding of electronic hardware and software.

    The American who has the best handle on this is George Gilder whose book, The Israel Test, explains the important role of Jewish scientists in the Twentieth Century and the present century in both science and technology. Both Germany and the Soviet Union have suffered greatly from driving Jewish scientists and engineers to the U.S. and Israel.

    For a decent introduction to this subject, read Gilder’s City Journal article Silicon Israel How market capitalism saved the Jewish state including:

    Israelis are also leaders in arguably the most important technology arena today, particularly for military uses. This is the ability of computers using parallelism to sense, accept, and process information as quickly as modern transmission techniques—especially fiber-optics lines—can deliver it. A representative device in this effort, and a powerful symbol of Israel’s leading position in Internet technology, is the “network processor.” Just as a Pentium microchip is the microprocessor that makes most PCs work, the network processor is the device that makes the next-generation Internet work, doing the vital routing and switching at network nodes. The next-generation Internet will allow “petaflops” (1015 floating-point operations per second) of real-time computational power to be deployed to virtually any point on the earth. The network processor will let any desktop computer access data and processing power exponentially greater than that incorporated in any PC or any single corporate data center.

    America has a vital interest in keeping good relations with Israel, as in the long run it will likely become the leading economic and political player in a more democratic Middle East. Some thoughtful Arabs understand that Israel could lead the Middle East in economic and educational development. It could, also, be of great benefit to the U.S. in what will likely be a fateful intellectual, political, and economic struggle with China.

  • WebMonk

    SK @ 5 “what if Iran did the same thing to us, say by buying some Chinese code on the international cyberwarfare market? ”

    Just from the technical side of things, that’s not a concern at the moment. (and doing it exactly the way you mentioned isn’t possible, period. you’d have to do it with a different approach) Iran’s computer security is several LARGE steps behind the USA’s. (at least where we’re talking about nuclear facilities) Doing a similar thing to our nuclear facility computers is well beyond our current ability to do.

    For example, the Iranian facility had strictly off-the-shelf virus protection and firewalls that were spottily maintained. Internal protections were also lousy, such as people sharing thumb drives all over the place and using those thumb drives for home use as well. And internal software protections were also virtually non-existent.

    I wouldn’t quite describe it as launching a modern fighter into WWI, but maybe sending a Vietnam-era fighter against WWI targets would be accurate. That Vietnam-era fighter wouldn’t be able to beat the modern fighters, but it’s still an incredible fighting machine.

    Now, give computer development another 20-30 years, and SK’s concern might be a bit more relevant.

    Now, if you wanted to seriously hose up a water reclamation plant’s computers (or an electrical company) and cause all sorts of havoc like we did to their nuclear processing plant, that is certainly doable. However, spending $100 million to destroy a couple water plants probably isn’t what nations want to do with cyber war.

  • WebMonk

    SK @ 5 “what if Iran did the same thing to us, say by buying some Chinese code on the international cyberwarfare market? ”

    Just from the technical side of things, that’s not a concern at the moment. (and doing it exactly the way you mentioned isn’t possible, period. you’d have to do it with a different approach) Iran’s computer security is several LARGE steps behind the USA’s. (at least where we’re talking about nuclear facilities) Doing a similar thing to our nuclear facility computers is well beyond our current ability to do.

    For example, the Iranian facility had strictly off-the-shelf virus protection and firewalls that were spottily maintained. Internal protections were also lousy, such as people sharing thumb drives all over the place and using those thumb drives for home use as well. And internal software protections were also virtually non-existent.

    I wouldn’t quite describe it as launching a modern fighter into WWI, but maybe sending a Vietnam-era fighter against WWI targets would be accurate. That Vietnam-era fighter wouldn’t be able to beat the modern fighters, but it’s still an incredible fighting machine.

    Now, give computer development another 20-30 years, and SK’s concern might be a bit more relevant.

    Now, if you wanted to seriously hose up a water reclamation plant’s computers (or an electrical company) and cause all sorts of havoc like we did to their nuclear processing plant, that is certainly doable. However, spending $100 million to destroy a couple water plants probably isn’t what nations want to do with cyber war.

  • Stephanie

    It sounds like this was a highly specific virus. It did not damage computers used for business or public works or even personal use. It was, perhaps, the least damaging way to make a pretty big difference in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. I admire the ingenuity but also the restraint using such methods displays.

    Also it further feeds my paranoia that the developers at work are inserting all sorts of “if (Stephanie is using the computer & no one else is watching) then (make a really annoying bug manifest)” code into our site because non-reproducible bugs are the *worst*.

  • Stephanie

    It sounds like this was a highly specific virus. It did not damage computers used for business or public works or even personal use. It was, perhaps, the least damaging way to make a pretty big difference in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. I admire the ingenuity but also the restraint using such methods displays.

    Also it further feeds my paranoia that the developers at work are inserting all sorts of “if (Stephanie is using the computer & no one else is watching) then (make a really annoying bug manifest)” code into our site because non-reproducible bugs are the *worst*.


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