In an article by NY Times correspondent David Sanger, it was revealed that President Obama has been overseeing a new and unprecedented effort by the United States to engage in sustained cyberwarfare, in this case with Iran. Seems like this is the beginning of something big.
The plan was conceived in 2006 as an attempt to dissuade Israel from launching a conventional weapons strike against Iran. It sounds like the goal was to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges so that they would destroy their contents (and possibly damage themselves), costing the Iranian government in time, money for supplies, and patience. Instead of bombing the Natanz facility, the goal was to have it destroy itself, physically and psychologically. From one of the architects, “The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence.” It sounds like it worked:
“The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid, which is what happened,” the participant in the attacks said. When a few centrifuges failed, the Iranians would close down whole “stands” that linked 164 machines, looking for signs of sabotage in all of them. “They overreacted,” one official said. “We soon discovered they fired people.”
Imagery recovered by nuclear inspectors from cameras at Natanz — which the nuclear agency uses to keep track of what happens between visits — showed the results. There was some evidence of wreckage, but it was clear that the Iranians had also carted away centrifuges that had previously appeared to be working well.
Although no one died from the effects of Stuxnet (though future attacks, such as shutting down flight control systems, could result in real casualties), the real value at this stage seems to be the inconvenience and headache it causes. As one Iranian official said after a separate virus attack wiped many hard disks in Iran’s Oil Ministry, “The aim is to increase pressure so that Iran will compromise in the upcoming nuclear talks. We are in a bloodless war. If the talks fail, Iran can expect much more of this.” As such, these tools seem akin to embargoes in their effect.
It’s understandable that the United States is using tactics like these against its enemies abroad. Much like the Cold War caused much upheaval and change around the world, it seems like this new type of “cold” warfare will allow nations to achieve their political aims without the bloodshed, risk, and loss of political capital that comes with armed struggle. It’s hard to take the moral high ground when you’re bombing the hell out of someone, so why not try something more discreet?
Finally, for domestic crime cases, openly leveraging cyberwarfare techniques make a lot of sense – communication and crime is increasingly happening online, and tools that can disrupt criminals and prevent crimes seem to be within the jurisdiction of agencies FBI. Of course, we need to be vigilant in protecting our civil liberties – and I don’t think we should or need to compromise our privacy just so tools to be developed against criminals.
All in all, it seems like our world is moving further and further towards treating viruses as weapons and not toys. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the weapons of cyberwarfare will get more destructive over time, so we might not like where that takes us.