Waiting for the Cyber-ApocalypseRoundup
tags: Cold War, blowback, cybersecurity
Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all hacked into this country’s infrastructure to steal corporate secrets, pilfer personal information, embarrass federal agencies, make money, or influence elections. For its part, the American government is anything but an innocent victim of such acts. In fact, it was an early pioneer in the field and continues to lead the way in cyberoperations overseas.
This country has a long history of making weapons that have later been used against it. When allies suddenly turn into adversaries like the Iranian government after the Shah was ousted in the 1979 revolution or the mujahideen in Afghanistan after their war against the Red Army ended in 1989, the weapons switch sides, too. In other cases, like the atomic bomb or unmanned aerial vehicles, the know-how behind the latest technological advances inevitably leaks out, triggering an arms race.
In all these years, however, none of those weapons has been used with such devastating effect against the U.S. homeland as the technology of cyberwarfare.
In 2009, the centrifuges capable of refining Iranian uranium to weapons-grade level began to malfunction. At first, the engineers there didn’t pay much attention to the problem. Notoriously finicky, such high-speed centrifuges were subject to frequent breakdowns. The Iranians regularly had to replace as many as one of every 10 of them. This time, however, the number of malfunctions began to multiply and then multiply again, while the computers that controlled the centrifuges started to behave strangely, too.
It was deep into 2010, however, before computer security specialists from Belarus examined the Iranian computers and discovered the explanation for all the malfunctioning. The culprit responsible was a virus, a worm that had managed to burrow deep into the innards of those computers through an astonishing series of zero-day exploits.
That worm, nicknamed Stuxnet, was the first of its kind. Admittedly, computer viruses had been creating havoc almost since the dawn of the information age, but this was something different. Stuxnet could damage not only computers but the machines that they controlled, in this case destroying about 1,000 centrifuges. Developed by U.S. intelligence agencies in cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, Stuxnet would prove to be but the first salvo in a cyberwar that continues to this day.
It didn’t take long before other countries developed their own versions of Stuxnet to exploit the same kind of zero-day vulnerabilities. In her book This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth describes in horrifying detail how the new cyber arms race has escalated. It took Iran only three years to retaliate for Stuxnet by introducing malware into Aramco, the Saudi oil company, destroying 30,000 of its computers. In 2014, North Korea executed a similar attack against Sony Pictures in response to a film that imagined the assassination of that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, Pelroth reports, Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. firms to harvest intellectual property, ranging from laser technology and high-efficiency gas turbines to the plans for “the next F-35 fighter” and “the formulas for Coca-Cola and Benjamin Moore paint.”
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