Since the discovery of Stuxnet in 2010, further investigation has revealed that earlier versions of this malware have been in existence. Therefore it is concluded that Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame have been in operation possibly since 2005, collecting information and preparing to strike at the chosen moment. It is entirely possible that their developers used Duqu and Flame to collect information about their target systems before unleashing Stuxnet. It is also believed that an earlier version of Stuxnet failed to cause much damage but the latest version (called Stuxnet 1.0) caused considerable damage to Iran’s centrifuges. In January 2010, the IAEA reported that Iran had removed and disposed of between 1000 and 2000 centrifuges without giving any reason. It is now believed that this was the result of the damage caused by Stuxnet.
In the past three years the world has become aware of a new kind of warfare we call cyberwar. This war is not fought by armies, navies and air forces using guns, tanks, ships and aircraft, but by computer engineers sitting behind desks using their brainpower and expertise day after day. The effects, however, can be as devastating as the damage caused by conventional armed forces.
The discovery of Stuxnet, Flame and others like them marks a turning point in the way future geopolitical conflicts will be fought. They bring science fiction, once the domain of Hollywood movies, to everyday life with all its potential consequences.
People have been arguing whether the tens of millions that must have been spent in developing these malware were well spent, whether they have managed to delay Iran’s nuclear programme in any significant way. We probably will not know the answers to these questions for many years to come, just as we will not know how many more of these worms are out there doing their clandestine work until they are discovered.
What is clear, however, is that Stuxnet, Flame and others like them have opened a new frontier in geopolitical conflict and every nation-state will have to ready their defences against this threat. Nation-states are not the only ones showing a keen interest in these technologies. Sophisticated criminal organisations are also seeing what is possible and exploring how to benefit from them – a truly worrying prospect. Indeed, In October 2012, the US defence secretary Leon Panetta warned of the ‘cyber threat’ faced by the US and the damage it could cause not only to the US companies but also to infrastructure by poisoning water supplies, derailing trains, disabling power supply, etc., and asked US industry and educational institutions to prepare themselves to face this new threat.
As we have seen, cyberwar is an important 21st century battleground, the soldiers of which are the brightest computer scientists from the best universities. Let’s make sure that we all support the Israeli universities that are working day and night to ensure that Israel is protected from cyber-attacks from her enemies and remains the most advanced force in fighting this new war.
© M. Ozdamar (2013)