WORM WAR ONE

12 02 2011

A very unusual and deeply significant event happened last Fall, but largely escaped notice in the media. The significance of this story is that we have crossed a threshold, entered a new territory, and there is no telling what will happen next. Sometimes that’s a good thing. In the long run, this particular event may be beneficial, but I have a feeling it is going to raise a lot of hell along the way.

I’m not even talking about climate change here. The event was the infection of the control system for Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm called “Stuxnet.”

Stuxnet is a very carefully designed worm. It won’t use your computer to send spam. It won’t eat your hard drive. But, if your computer is one that controls certain kinds of industrial equipment, especially nuclear centrifuges, Stuxnet will cause the centrifuges to malfunction, while it shields the malfunction from monitoring equipment. Nuclear centrifuges have to spin at a certain speed in order to properly separate out the uranium isotopes. If the speed varies, they don’t do the job right, and the end product will not function properly in a nuclear reactor–or an atomic bomb.

That is not the kind of worm that is designed by bored teenage hackers in LA.  It is a highly sophisticated computer program that could only have been designed by a very big business or a government. “Dissection” of the worm uncovered several clues that seem to point to Israeli involvement.

I’m not big on either nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons.  To me, they are both clear examples of technologies that a truly wise and intelligent species would have theorized about but not actually created, due to the inherent dangers.  But we are not a truly wise and intelligent species, and we have gone ahead and created hundreds of nuclear reactors and, according to once source, 23,000 nuclear weapons.  (Twenty-three again!  Who’s writing this script?)

Iran claims its nuclear program is intended for peaceful uses only.  But most of its neighbors have nuclear arsenals–the Russians on the north, the Pakistanis to the east, the Israelis to the west, (although we’re supposed to act as if they don’t!), and the US on its south, in the Persian Gulf.  When you’re surrounded by mean monkeys with big sticks, it’s a natural monkey reaction to grab the biggest stick you can and look as threatening as you can.  If the US really wants Iran not to reach for a big stick, we should stop harassing them.  That, however, is unlikely to happen.

There has been a great deal of speculation that, via its proxy, Israel, the US would act to take out Iran’s nuclear program with an air strike, similar to the Israeli attacks on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a mysterious target in Syria last fall.

Iran, however, is a much more problematic target for this kind of violence.  It’s further away from Israel than Syria or Iraq and has  more sophisticated air defense systems, leading to a greater possibility of failure.  With its superior resources and the experience of Israel’s attacks on its neighbors, Iran has doubtless “hardened” its nuclear facilities, making them less vulnerable to bombing.  Because the facilities are up and running, attacking them would also be more likely to involve considerable loss of life and widespread nuclear contamination, not to mention condemnation.  And then there’s blowback; Israel has repeatedly beat the crap out of Syria, so that its response to the Israeli attack was largely bluff and bluster; but Iran has much more capacity and willingness to retaliate.  An Israeli air strike on Iran could well have the same effect as throwing a lit match into a very large pool of gasoline.

So, attacking Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm is, in many ways, a far more sensible choice than sending in the bombers.  And, from a realpolitik viewpoint, the accompanying assassinations of several top Iranian nuclear scientists is more compassionate, or maybe just less uncompassionate, than dropping a bunker-buster on the site and spreading radioactive debris all over the surrounding countryside.

I can understand Israel’s skittishness.  There is a genocidal holocaust in their past, and they want to do all they can to make sure there isn’t another, nuclear, holocaust in their future.  If they’re serious about that, maybe they should just give up on Palestine and move to Nevada or Utah.  But that’s another story.

My guess is that we have not heard the last of this exchange.  You can be sure Iran is looking for a way to retaliate, some back-door, plausible-deniability m.o. that will cripple US and/or Israeli infrastructure without being blatant.  China is apparently actively researching ways to cripple American computer networks.  Perhaps Iran can serve China in the same way that Israel serves America?

It doesn’t have to be high-tech.  It’s long been known that a few tons of gravel, launched into the same low-earth orbit as communications and spy satellites, would rapidly take out every one of those vital links in our communication network.  Bye-bye internet, bye-bye cell phones, bye-bye credit card transactions, bye-bye military communications. Sure, putting gravel in outer space is “rocket science,”  as well as a bad pun, but it’s pretty simple rocket science.  The North Koreans could probably pull that one off.

The worm war is on.  Its campaigns are  well disguised and waged in secret, and there’s no telling when, or what, the next attack will be.  Make hard copies of your favorite data and keep plenty of cash on hand.  Things could get primitive in the blink of an eye–or the launch of a rock.  Taking down communications satellites with rocks–back to the stone age, eh?

music:  Medeski, Martin, and Wood, “Bloody Oil”

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