With Stuxnet, Did The U.S. And Israel Create a New Cyberwar Era?

Remember the years-long controversy about whether the U.S. or the Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear program? It appears they just did — virtually. And if they did, they also may have expanded our sense of how nations wage war in cyberspace.

For all the hype, “cyberwar” has been a bush-league affair so far. Websites get defaced or taken offline, or an adversary’s software gets logic-bombed into a malfunctioning mess. Analysts warn that future assaults could fry an electrical grid (if it’s networked too well) or cause a military to lose contact with a piece of its remotely-controlled hardware. But that’s about the extent of the damage. Only the Stuxnet worm may point to a huge innovation for cyberwar: the mass disablement of an enemy’s most important strategic programs.

Stuxnet’s origin is unknown. Attributing credit for Stuxnet is rightly the subject of geopolitical intrigue. As our sister blog Threat Level has exhaustively reported, the worm eats away at a very specific kind of industrial control system: a configuration of the Siemens-manufactured Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system that commands the centrifuges enriching uranium for Iran’s nuclear program, the key step for an Iranian bomb. But the Stuxnet whodunit may be solved: it appears to be a joint U.S.-Israeli collaboration — and a cyberwarfare milestone.

The New York Times doesn’t have definitive proof, but it has fascinating circumstantial evidence, and Threat Level’s Kim Zetter will publish more on Tuesday. In 2008, Siemens informed a major Energy Department laboratory of the weaknesses in its SCADA systems. Around that time, the heart of Israel’s nuclear-weapons complex, Dimona, began experimenting on an industrial-sabotage protocol based on a model of the Iranian enrichment program. The Obama administration embraced an initiative begun by the Bush administration to “bore into [Iranian] computers” and disable the nuclear effort. Motive, meet opportunity. By late 2009, Stuxnet was popping up globally, including in Iran.

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