Stuxnet - A Bloodless Weapon

02 Nov 2014

Wired released a fascinating excerpt today about Stuxnet. Stuxnet defies definition, but could be vaguely defined as a disrupter of state-activity. It’s not a “weapon” per se - it hasn’t weaponized anything that we know of. It doesn’t kill people, doesn’t threaten, and is scarcely detectable. Rather than recapping Stuxnet’s penetration of Iranian nuclear facilities, which the book will do anyway, let’s talk about the implications.

The days of sending specialized covert teams for reconnaissance are not over. Modern warfare as we know it will still require the butchering of thousands of young men. Stuxnet is less of a weapon and more of a tool, but it’s a valuable learning experience for countries and companies interested in data security and penetration by malicious actors. The penetration gives us a small window into high-end corporate espionage, the likes of which are simply unimaginable to the average human being. There are programmers and hackers with elite skill sets currently in the employ of governments who desire more information.

What will warfare look like in the future? While it will still require the deaths of thousands of people, the way in which those deaths come about will be startlingly swift. In World War 1, crude reconnaissance airplanes provided huge advantage to commanders willing to use their information. In World World 2, reconnaissance planes paved the road to victory for the Allies marching towards Germany. During the Cold War, Soviet and American air forces competed in a technological race to control the skies. Witness the money continually poured into defense projects involving stealth bombers. What does this have to do with Stuxnet?

Modern militaries operate via the Internet, radio, and other communications. They need satellite imagery, terrain maps, location tracking, and much more. The cohesion and response times of the modern military are simply unparalleled at any other time in human history. Computers, programs, and networks enable this fantastic display of power and logistics.

Alexander the Great commanded roughly 47,000 soldiers and conquered much of the known world. He rampaged from province to province, smashing other armies. Today, that 47,000-strong force would be bombed to shreds as soon as it took the field. In fact, it would not take the field. It would be slaughtered while assembling.

Der Spiegel published an article on December 29th, 2013. This article illuminated a little-known branch of the NSA known as the TAO - The Office of Tailored Access Operations. This branch retains the top penetration minds in the business, and is fond of “getting the ungettable.” A former unit head states that TAO has unearthed “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.” In 2010, the TAO conducted 279 operations worldwide. Previous data would indicate that the TAO has operated in nearly every country worth penetrating. TAO specialists have accessed the president of Mexico’s email, hacked into secure European data channels, and backdoored sensitive hardware heading out-of-country.

Approximately 85,000 computers will be penetrated by NSA hackers this year. This figure does not include those being passively penetrated. The NSA uses spam, exploits, and hacks known to the general world of blackhats, but they also develop and upgrade their own proprietary penetration system, known as QUANTUM. QUANTUM takes advantage of vulnerabilities in popular applications and websites in order to exploit target systems and reveal sensitive information. QUANTUM is capable of penetrating Yahoo, Facebook, and other social services.

QUANTUMINSERT, which appears to be an extraordinarily advanced “man-in-the-middle” attack, boasts over 50% success rates using LinkedIn. The GCHQ used fake LinkedIn pages to target Belgian engineers who had access to proprietary information.

Wondering if your data is safe? It’s not. According to Der Spiegel, “the NSA has planted backdoors to access computers, hard drives, routers, and other devices from companies such as Cisco, Dell, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, Samsung, and Huawei.”

Do you use encryption? Perhaps you use the popular RSA algorithm, one of the newest and most secure encryption methods ever invented. Unfortunately, the NSA paid RSA $10 million in order to secure a backdoor in the encryption. Don’t be outraged, it’s simply the cost of doing security business. The government is interested in your information, and they have an edge in that the average citizen cannot comprehend the methods with which they obtain that information.

How does all of this relate to modern and future warfare?

Controlling intelligence will become the dominant warfare aim in the near future. While wars in the past were typically dictated by money and hardware, new wars will be won and lost digitally. I would be truly interested (in an academic sense) to see two technological giants go at each other. The NSA has a national security interest in placing backdoors in foreign computers that goes beyond simple corporate and economic espionage - they may be able to shut down key enemy systems in the event of full fledged war. The long-term goal of the NSA, TAO, and organizations in that vein is ultimately securing future dominance in information warfare. Stealth bombers are useless if they can be countered electronically. Nuclear launch sites could fall victim to attacks much like Stuxnet. The U.S./Israeli alliance has (almost certainly, though it will likely never be proven) already used electronic surveillance to spy and summarily execute several key Iranian nuclear scientists.

The Internet is an incredible tool. It allows for the distribution of information on a scale never thought possible. Commanders can follow real-time progress of their soldiers on foot, view recent satellite imagery, and drop bombs with pin-point accuracy. These advanced technological capabilities all have weakness and vulnerabilities. Discovery and exploitation of these weaknesses could bring a mighty military to its knees. A pre-internet military will simply not be able to logistically compete with a fully-networked army. The future of warfare resides in controlling information, not guns.