A Technological Smart-Bomb

New York Times: Stuxnet Worm Used Against Iran Was Tested in Israel

One part of the program is designed to lie dormant for long periods, then speed up the machines so that the spinning rotors in the centrifuges wobble and then destroy themselves. Another part, called a “man in the middle” in the computer world, sends out those false sensor signals to make the system believe everything is running smoothly. That prevents a safety system from kicking in, which would shut down the plant before it could self-destruct.

“Code analysis makes it clear that Stuxnet is not about sending a message or proving a concept,” Mr. Langner later wrote. “It is about destroying its targets with utmost determination in military style.”

This was not the work of hackers, he quickly concluded. It had to be the work of someone who knew his way around the specific quirks of the Siemens controllers and had an intimate understanding of exactly how the Iranians had designed their enrichment operations.

In fact, the Americans and the Israelis had a pretty good idea.

Even though I am far from a computer genius (I’m not even qualified to enroll in the remedial classes!) I found this piece interesting. There was a little of the tone I expected from the New York Times–Accusatory toward Israel, the United States, and big corporations–but far more interesting was the account of how everything seemed to come together to make this happen.

This, for example …

No one was more intrigued than Mr. Langner, a former psychologist who runs a small computer security company in a suburb of Hamburg. Eager to design protective software for his clients, he had his five employees focus on picking apart the code and running it on the series of Siemens controllers neatly stacked in racks, their lights blinking.

He quickly discovered that the worm only kicked into gear when it detected the presence of a specific configuration of controllers, running a set of processes that appear to exist only in a centrifuge plant. “The attackers took great care to make sure that only their designated targets were hit,” he said. “It was a marksman’s job.”

For example, one small section of the code appears designed to send commands to 984 machines linked together.

Curiously, when international inspectors visited Natanz in late 2009, they found that the Iranians had taken out of service a total of exactly 984 machines that had been running the previous summer.

… may be the coolest thing ever. To me, what jumps out is the importance of human intelligence.  After all, someone had to know how many machines to target.

The only problem I see with attacking Iranian nuclear capabilities through use of a computer worm is that any success it has now could be used as a reason to unreasonably delay the use of traditional force should it be needed in the future.  But the Stuxnet worm worked before, so maybe we could try it again. Even though the article is clear that Barack Obama acted to speed up the program, I could see the argument now.  The foundation for it is right here:

Two years ago, when Israel still thought its only solution was a military one and approached Mr. Bush for the bunker-busting bombs and other equipment it believed it would need for an air attack, its officials told the White House that such a strike would set back Iran’s programs by roughly three years. Its request was turned down.

Now, Mr. Dagan’s statement suggests that Israel believes it has gained at least that much time, without mounting an attack. So does the Obama administration.

Of course, a fun new concern is that, if Israel and the United States are able to do this (likely with the help of Siemens), who else could do the same?

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Comments

  1. Bob Upton says:

    Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
    Those who ignore science fiction are doomed to live it.
    Those who ignore God are doomed.

    How is our technologically dependent society going to handle another Carrington Event, the great solar-storm of 1859, when it occurs again?

    Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5,6

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hmmmmm, are the ACORN offices, networked?

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