Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

Summary: Is using preemptive cyberwarfare good national security policy?

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TOPICS: Security
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The New York Times Sunday published an important and informative analysis of the Stuxnet malware and its attack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

As a cyberwarfare adviser to national security and counter-terrorism agencies and professionals, I've studiously avoided writing about Stuxnet in the past for reasons I'm not at liberty to discuss. I also won't comment on the specifics mentioned in the New York Times article.

That said, I do think it's important to look at the strategic question of whether using preemptive cyberwarfare is ultimately good policy or not.

The issue can be oversimplified to two questions: (1) is a preemptive attack of any form necessary for national security, and (2) can that attack be more effective or save more lives using virtual weapons?

Preemptive attack

Question (1) is easily answered. Is a preemptive attack of any form necessary for national security? The answer is, "Sure, but very rarely."

Key to any government's successful operation on a world stage is the need to be aware of other actors' intents towards your nation. That's why all nations have their own spy agencies.

A combination of humint -- human intelligence, or feet on the ground -- and elint (electronic intelligence) can help a nation build a rough picture of impending threats or opportunities.

We can all imagine the worst case of impending threats. Terrorists could have an NBC (nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon) and be poised to release it. In that situation, preemptive attack is almost certainly justified. That, of course, is assuming the intelligence is correct -- which is not always evident.

The issue of righteousness or even strategic validity of a preemptive attack becomes more blurry when the attack is to prevent a possible behavior by another sovereign nation that may or may not pose a direct threat to the preemptively attacking nation.

This, of course, was the question with Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and is likely to be the question with Iran's nuclear activities.

In these cases, the justifications are more murky. As we all know, the attack on Saddam substantially destabilized the region, drew the United States into an unending war, cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and hasn't resulted in a net positive benefit to American security.

But that's because Saddam apparently didn't have WMDs. If he did, we still don't know if he'd have actually used them, paraded them around as a point of pride, or simply stockpiled them.

In Saddam's case, as in the case of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the direct threat to mainland American soil is vanishingly low. However, the threat from both these nations against Israel is far more than a rounding error and so, from Israel's national perspective, WMD programs in these nations are considered serious threats.

There's a lot of debate about whether or not it's in America's best interests to help fight Israel's battles. But the point here is that a nation such as Israel, operating under constant impending and declared threat of nuclear attack, might well find a preemptive attack to be justified.

Next: Virtual weapons »

« Previous: Preemptive strikes

Virtual weapons

This brings us to the second part of our strategic question: can the use of virtual weapons such as the malware popularly known as "Stuxnet" be justified?

This must be answered in two parts. Can it be justified the first time such a weapon is used, and can it be justified after that cherry has been broken?

Here's the thing. According to The New York Times article, Stuxnet was used, and it was successful. The Times reports that nuclear machinery was brought offline because Stuxnet destabilized them, physically damaging the mechanisms.

I can't fully state whether or not Stuxnet was the first use of attack software to successfully damage machinery, but it certainly provides public proof-of-concept.

There's the rub, though. Now that proof-of-concept has been shown, the genie is out of the bottle, and other nations and actors will be aware of the strategic potential of this new form of easily deployable weapon.

When the Little Boy and Fat Man nukes were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. accomplished a strategic goal. But it also telegraphed to the entire world that nuclear weapons were viable systems, ushering in the unfortunate reality of the potential for mutually assured destruction.

Virtual weapons arms race

Stuxnet is effectively the Little Boy and Fat Man of the digital age. Unfortunately, like the nuclear arms race, the Stuxnet virus will likely launch a virtual weapons arms race among nations.

Let me be clear here. I'm not saying Stuxnet and its ilk are capable of blowing up cities and towns. Rather, the launch of Stuxnet is a watershed event in weaponization, ushering in a new era and type of weapon that will have a profound effect on the theater of war and that is particularly suited to the realities of our digital age.

Unfortunately, virtual weaponry is vastly easier to create and deploy than nuclear weapons. Because the cost of digital weapons development is almost insanely inexpensive, the barrier of entry to this new form of destruction is paper-thin.

While there are only eight nations known to be in the nuclear club, almost any nation, interest group, terrorist group, or teenager living at home can develop and deploy virtual weapons systems.

This ubiquity poses the greatest threat. While Stuxnet was arguably deployed for a justifiable reason and may have saved lives over an otherwise almost-certain Israeli conventional weapons attack, virtual weapons can be aimed by our enemies at our interests as well.

If Stuxnet could target specific network configurations and devices in Iran, so could another attacker aim at critical infrastructure elements belonging to the United States or our allies.

Defending against attack

As any network engineer who's been at the business end of a DDoS (distributed denial of service attack) can attest to, fighting cyberattacks is a huge challenge and the potential for asymmetric advantage on the part of the attacker is disturbingly strong.

Therefore, if Stuxnet is ushering in a new age of modern warfare, we must invest even more in a new age of modern digital defense.

It's one thing to be able to attack a network of a specific enemy. It's entirely another to be able to defend our networks against any and all possible attacks by any and all possible enemies.

We clearly have our work cut out for ourselves. Fortunately, America is full of highly innovative professionals and we're certainly up to the challenge.

I don't look forward to the day when we're on the defending end of an attack like Stuxnet, but I do expect that day to come.

It's our job to make sure we're prepared. It's also important for any attackers to think twice before attacking. Like the nuclear race before it, virtual attacks are also subject to a form of MAD (mutually assured destruction). If you attack us, we will attack you back and you will be badly hurt.

Perhaps if all nations and all actors keep MAD in mind, Stuxnet will be a one-time event and we'll be writing about it in the history books like we now write about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Topic: Security

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

    No need to panic. If a small group/nation state attack us with a worm we just need to reply with conventional weapon systems.
    Tommy S.
    • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

      @Tommy S. : what is such a worm cripples the computers behind the conventional weapon systems?
      nomorebs
    • ha ha virus on a System/Z insane....

      @Tommy S.

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      Interfaced with IBM DB2 Express-C batch SQL capabilities; [ I actually help in doing some of this, really ]

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      Running on Win & Linux or J2SE supported platform's

      100% JAVA Open Source... 100% F R E E ...

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      Page-Cray
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @Page-Cray Nut job. Didn't get his meds today.
        phil8192
      • I think stelazine or thorazine might be good for you now

        @Page-Cray You seem to have a serious imbalance in the biochemistry of your brain. While it may not be curable, it may be treatable, and I think you need to investigate that before it becomes an even bigger problem than it already is, which is already quite large.
        thetwonkey
  • Hiroshima?

    One is a bunch of zeros and ones, the other a nuclear bomb killings countless humans.

    Give me a break.
    Economister
    • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

      @Economister
      Nope, you don't get a break. As one can plainly see, it's an analogy. Hiroshima bombing => proof of concept for nuclear weapons; Stuxnet attack => proof of concept for digital weapons.
      matricellc
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @markpescatrice Actually, the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo was the proof of concept. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the successful attempt to convince the Japanese to surrender without an invasion of their home islands.
        DNSB
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @markpescatrice Exactly...must not have read the article.
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @DSNB<br>No. It was already WELL known to the upper brass that the Japanese would have surrendered. The idea that hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died in an invasion of the island because the Japanese would all fight to the death is a myth with NO basis in fact, proffered by people with no useful experience with the Japanese.<br>In fact, the Japanese generals were always very pragmatic, and most of them were against the war from the beginning. They engaged in it for one reason and one reason only. They were ordered to by the emperor. Period.<br>They also knew that the writing was on the wall as to their imminent defeat, and there were already high level negotiations regarding surrender. The only sticking point was the continued reign of the emperor. Period.<br>Sure, some of them would have died committing Sepuku, but they would not have continued fighting to the death.<br>After the bomb was dropped, negotiations resumed. Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese did NOT immediately capitulate. They refused to surrender unless one condition was met. The same one that was on the table before. The continued reign of the emperor. Period.<br>When McArthur, who lived in Japan and knew them very well, convinced the powers that be the wiseness of some humility, and acceding to this demand, the Japanese surrendered, without loss of life on either side.<br><br>BTW, the reason for dropping the bomb was the same one as our reason to invade Europe. It had NOTHING to do with Hitler, and FTR, the US, did NOT liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. It is only in the U.S. that history is taught from this myopic perspective. The Soviet Union did. They single-handedly beat the Germans, mostly due to the fact that Stalin was probably a sociopath, and had no concern for the millions of lives he threw like bullets into the line of fire. And he had millions more to spare. We entered the war in the European theatre because WE knew that too. The result was all but inevitable. Once the Soviets overran Berlin, they would not have stopped. They would have proceeded to "liberate" France, and Spain, and Italy, and eventually set their sights on Great Britain. We entered the war to beat them to the punch.<br>The U.S. did not liberate Europe from Germany and Hitler, it liberated them preemptively from the Soviet Union, and Stalin.<br>We did the same in Japan. It became clear to the U.S. at the council of Yalta that the Soviets would take it upon themselves to be responsible for the invasion of Japan. We did NOT want Japan falling to the Soviets, since we already had an idea what was to happen later in Eastern Europe. We also knew the time table, and that the Soviets were not quite ready.<br>The A-Bomb was dropped to bring the war to a swift, immediate, and final conclusion, thus preempting any attempts by the Soviets to extend their influence into the Pacific Rim. It also made it clear to them that we had drawn a line in the sand.<br>This is also why, historically, the Soviets were diametrically against both the Korean and Vietnamese civil wars, and only supported them after their occurrence was a foregone conclusion. This is why the expanding Soviet influence argument was such a joke when it was given as justification for the U.S. entering into those wars, and why they, especially the Vietnamese War, served little strategic purpose. Certainly after the North won that war, there was NO extension of Soviet Russian influence, as the Vietnamese had NO intention of being told what to do by the Russians. They never did. The Soviets, rightly, feared that all either of these wars would do is stoke Western tensions, and make life difficult for them. They were right. It did. It eventually fueled the Cold War, forcing them to divert important resources to the military complex instead of their civilian economy, resources that were in scare supply due to poor management by a corrupt, central bureaucracy. Over several decades, this inherent weakness in their economic system created cracks, then fissures, then full rifts, that eventually led to complete collapse.<br>Sorry Reagan, you had little to nothing to do with it! (Other than act as a catalyst to accelerate the fall.)<br>The Soviet system was a chair collapsing under its own weight. We just sat on it at the right time!
        DeusXMachina
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @DNSB
        Actually, as everyone knows, the japanese had already surrendered, but the US military was desperate to test its new toy. Mis-information is the worst kind...
        12312332123
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @DeusXMachina and @Traxxion

        Good God, revisionists!

        Where is your evidence for what you claim was "well known" and what "everyone knows". Actually since I know no such thing obviously everyone does not know.

        My BS detector is alarming loudly.
        cornpie
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @DeusXMachina @cornpie

        I've no idea about Japan and Asia, but what DXM wrote about WW2 in Europe with regards to Soviet expansion and the US push against it is true. The US were hoping that the war in Europe would be settled, one way or another, by the Europeans alone, but once Hitler dragged the Russians into it they had no option but to step in to provide a bulwark against them.
        OffsideInVancouver
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @DeusExMachina

        Wow. That's a lengthy and very interesting piece. It actually makes sense
        congalalalala
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @cornpie<br>Um, hate to break it to you, but it is only revisionist if you were taught history in the U.S. (and even then, only if you didn't pay attention.) Pretty much EVERYWHERE else in the world, a far less U.S.-centric view is taught, and HAS been taught for over half a century.<br>Needless to say, it is NOT what "everyone knows."<br><br>One wonders where you learned history, and how well you did in your history classes.<br><br>As for citations, you can find a plethora of sources online, or you can recheck your history books, or you can read any number of biographies of and interviews with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.<br><br>If your B.S. detector is going off, you might want to recheck YOUR facts and assumptions.<br><br>Besides which, your "standard" position just does not make logical sense. I am sorry, but ANYONE who understands strategy and tactics, and knows how to do strategic war games, eventually comes to the conclusion that the U.S. was superfluous to beating the Germans. For christ's sake, even the GERMANS knew that! Why do you think Hitler's top generals were so against opening the second front? They were already losing on the first!<br>In addition, the ONLY reason that silly meme about the Japanese survives is because so few Americans know ANYTHING about Japanese culture. To be clear, the Japanese would NOT have defended the island to the death, as long as the emperor was allowed to retain his position. This has happened several times in Japanese history, and MacArthur knew that. You want proof? The history of the council of Yalta is readily available in numerous sources, and the U.S' position under Roosevelt and Truman was also quite clear, and is even more so, now that many historical documents have been declassified.<br><br>Before you respond to your alarms, and start writing misinformed replies with dubious and tortured use of pronouns, you might want to do your OWN research.
        DeusXMachina
      • I keep seeing this crap pop up all over the net to get useful facts.

        @DeusXMachina

        What a hopeless revisionist.

        It is true that the soviet army bumped off the majority of the Wehrmacht but who do you think supplied them with all the war material to do so thru Archangel. We did. The arsenal of democracy. Over 100,000 Studebaker trucks for the rocket division, all their food and water and small arms and bullets and they still lost over 10:1 in killing ratio. Don't forget the 90,000 Harley side cars and 1000s of Bell aircraft. What really slowed the Germans down was our bombing of Ploesti oil fields so they had no fuel to fight the Soviets or against us. Synthetic fuel did some good but was limited in quantity. Every U-boat they built to fight us in the Atlantic meant 50 less King Tigers in steal on the eastern front. Tired of how the revisionists saying the Soviets did it all by themselves when in reality they had practically nothing in June of 1941. We also helped them build tank plants in the east and showed them production techniques. The list goes on and on that you decided to suppress.

        As for Japan, we nuked them to avoid American casualities from lessons learned from the losses at Iwo Jima. It is not because the Russians overran the Japanese in Manchuria or the Japanese generals were pragmatic. It was because they feared another atom bomb on Tokyo and we allowed them their Emperor. Besides later on he became useful to us. By the way it was the Emperor that wanted to surrender, not the generals, especially Tojo.

        At the time of WW2 we had 75% of the world's GDP. I know we did more than you revisionists claim. Right now Germany's GDP is 50% greater than Russia. Your a useful a.. useless idiot.
        osreinstall
      • Your history NEEDS revision

        @osreinstall<br>"What a hopeless revisionist."<br><br>You might want to take class in basic English along with your required history lesson. It is only revisionist if something is being revised. The idea that the U.S. won WWII is only a commonly held meme in the U.S.. It is NOT taught that way in the rest of the world. Hint: with only just over 300M people, we Aren't even close to being first. Or second.<br>More importantly, history is revised when new facts come to light. So you are welcome to your ostrich-like Luddite view of history. You are far more likely to be wrong, but why let facts get in your way of a good set of indoctrinated biases. Life is so much easier if you don't have to think and lear, but can just get by regurgitating what you have been told.<br><br>"It is true that the soviet army bumped off the majority of the Wehrmacht but who do you think supplied them with all the war material to do so thru Archangel. We did."<br><br>Your point being? What you failed to address in your irrelevant tirade was if that supply chain was per se, It was not. While it made things easier for the Russians, and thus us, it did NOT materially affect the final outcome in terms of Germany.<br><br>" and they still lost over 10:1 in killing ratio."<br><br>And what YOU forget is that Stalin did not give a crap. He lost over 10M, and did not lose a minute of sleep. And he had tens of millions more to spare. So what, exactly is your point here?<br><br>"Don't forget the 90,000 Harley side cars and 1000s of Bell aircraft. What really slowed the Germans down was our bombing of Ploesti oil fields so they had no fuel to fight the Soviets or against us. "<br><br>So? Again, you set up red herrings. The issue is not we did not affect the path or course of the war. Of course we did. The point is that we are NOT responsible for winning it. The Soviets are. That does not mean that if they were not involved, we could not have done it (although scenarios here are far less clear.)<br>The fact of the matter is, there is almost no way to play the war out where the Soviets do not win. I challenge you to put forth a tactical and strategic map by which Germany wins, with no U.S. involvement, at all. Good luck with that. FAR better minds than you have tried. (Many of them were high ranking German generals in Hitler's army, who knew the end was inevitable, as soon as Hitler broke his pact with Stalin.)
        DeusXMachina
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @osreinstall<br><br>"Tired of how the revisionists saying the Soviets did it all by themselves when in reality they had practically nothing in June of 1941."<br><br>Tired of how people who should have waited to pass their Hooked on Phonics course before attempting to engage in logical debate put words in people's mouths, since they are incapable of following the argument.<br><br>Pay attention. No one said the Soviets did it by themselves. The point is that they COULD have, and that we KNEW that. As such, along with additional data, including direct communications with the people involved, it is CLEAR that the reason the U.S. entered the war had NOTHING to do with Hitler, and EVERYTHING to do with Stalin. If we had wanted to take a stand against Hitler we had Numerous chances over the preceding years, Why, if your stated motivations are correct, did we wait until we did? Huh?<br><br>"The list goes on and on that you decided to suppress."<br><br>Where is your evidence that I or any other "revisionist" is suppressing anything? Not mentioning something because it is IRRELEVANT is NOT the same as suppressing it.<br><br>"As for Japan, we nuked them to avoid American casualities from lessons learned from the losses at Iwo Jima."<br><br>Oh really? Based on what? Do you know anything about Japanese culture? can you even speak more that 10 words of japanese? Your statement has NO basis in fact, only ignorance.<br><br>"It is not because the Russians overran the Japanese in Manchuria or the Japanese generals were pragmatic."<br><br>Being that no one said that, what it your point, other than to make a nice straw man?<br><br>"It was because they feared another atom bomb on Tokyo and we allowed them their Emperor."<br><br>And where is your proof of THAT? You are simply parroting the U.S. party line, proffered as an excuse for murdering 200,000 + innocent civilians. In fact private correspondence, cables,and declassified documents (see the discussion about about revisionist history) make it QUITE clear that this was not a big factor in the debate. Rather, it was the understanding on the part of the allies that the Soviets were poised to invade Japan, as they made perfectly clear at Yalta.<br><br>"Besides later on he became useful to us. By the way it was the Emperor that wanted to surrender, not the generals, especially Tojo."<br><br>By the way, you have no idea what you are talking about. The emperor barely even knew what was going on. But please, feel free to bolster your claim with citations. As already stated the Japanese were ALREADY in surrender talks with the Allies, PRIOR to the dropping of the A-Bomb. This is indisputable. This fact alone makes no sense in your distorter world view and cultural isolation and solipsism.<br><br>"At the time of WW2 we had 75% of the world's GDP. I know we did more than you revisionists claim."<br><br>Bull.<br>At the time of WWII, the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression. Or are you trying some slight of hand, and substituting the GDP for 1945, the end of the war, when Europe and Asia lay in ruins? Dishonest much?<br><br>"Your a useful a.. useless idiot."<br><br>And you are mindless sycophant, who can't even bother to spell check that silly attempt at ad hominem via disparaging my intelligence. The word is "you're". Nor are there two dots in an ellipsis, there are three.
        DeusXMachina
      • Who won WWII?

        @osreinstall I agree more less with DeusXmachia's rather lengthy monologue. According to American mythology, the US GIs single handedly defeated the Nazis and little mention is given to the huge Russian sacrifices. The turnaround in WWII came at the battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, 18 months before D-day. <br><br>Just an example, US lost 416,000 lives, Russia: 23 million (12 million civilians) - all together, 14% of the population perished. The bombing of London cost about 30,000 civilian lives. The siege of Leningrad alone cost over 1 million civilian lives.<br><br>You may find these stats interesting: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties</a><br><br>While it is true that the US was supplying the Soviets in a major way, you cannot compare trucks with human lives...
        prof123
      • RE: Special Report: Stuxnet may be the Hiroshima of our time

        @prof123

        I didn't say the Russians didn't contribute, it is that duex thinks they could go it alone. Even General Zhukov said that without American lend-lease we could not have gone on. We lent hundreds of millions of tons of supplies when they needed it and Zhukov also said the nationalists told the people we had the supplies all along. In my opinion if we stayed out and didn't ship supplies, Hilter would have won. Also we fed the entire Red Army. The supplies were mind boggling.
        http://www.america.gov/st/peacesec-english/2010/April/20100518114619zjsredna0.3529736.html?CP.rss=true
        http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1600.html

        I don't rely on Wikipedia for stats. I read a real history book. They are OK to get you in the ballpark but you better pick up a history book or read the .edu files.

        Actually more casualties than that.

        This guy is good on stats. Read the whole site. He separates civilian, soldiers and doesn't lump them all together.
        http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/DBG.TAB1.2.GIF

        No you cannot compare a truck to a human life but if we didn't supply them more people would die and they would have lost.
        osreinstall