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June 2012, Week 2

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Cyberweapons: Bold steps in a digital darkness?
By R. Scott Kemp
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
7 June 2012
http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/cyberweapons-bold-steps-digital-darkness

Article Highlights

    The United States rushed into the nuclear age eager
    to cement its technical superiority, disregarding
    warnings of key statesmen and scientists that a
    decades-long nuclear arms race would ensue. Before
    they go too far, policymakers should consider the
    implications -- both intended and unintended -- of
    cyberweapons.

    Though Israel and the United States may have vast
    resources to support sophisticated and creative
    cyberweapons programs, it is worth remembering that
    such advantage could be its disadvantage: Each new
    cyberattack becomes a template for other nations --
    or sub-national actors -- looking for ideas.

    As nations begin to develop cyberwarfare
    organizations, they run the risk of creating
    bureaucratic entities, which will protect offensive
    cyber capabilities that simultaneously subject their
    own publics to cyber vulnerabilities. Since the
    United States has the most to lose in this area, the
    safe approach is to direct cyber research at purely
    defensive applications.

In 1945, the United States organized a committee to
investigate whether nuclear weapons should become a
central military technology, or whether to abjure the
weapons and, through self-restraint, avoid a costly and
potentially deadly nuclear arms race. Led by
Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and Chairman of the
Tennessee Valley Authority David Lilienthal, the
committee produced the eponymous Acheson-Lilienthal
Report, which, after it failed to gather reasonable
support, marked a turning point in the Cold War and
signaled the beginning of the nuclear arms race. Almost
70 years later, we find ourselves at a similar juncture
with cyberwarfare. Cyber weapons do not appear to be
capable of mass destruction in the way nuclear weapons
clearly are, but they hold at risk some of the most
precious assets of our time: the information storage and
control mechanisms on which modern society has been
built. It is not difficult to imagine catastrophic
scenarios such as the destruction of a banking sector,
the elimination of a stock market, the flooding of a
dam, or the poisoning of a water supply -- all initiated
by malfunctions induced by malicious software. The
United States rushed into the nuclear age eager to
cement its technical superiority, causing a decades-long
nuclear arms race that threatened global extinction.
Before policymakers go too far, they should now take a
moment to consider the implications -- both intended and
unintended -- of cyberweapons.

While digital spying has taken place for decades, the
era of computer-mediated destruction has only recently
begun. Early this month The New York Times published an
investigative feature that explored Olympic Games, a
cyberweapons program designed to sabotage an element of
another country's infrastructure. Started during the
Bush administration, this is the first known program of
its kind. In embarking on Olympic Games, the United
States and Israel stepped boldly, but naively, into
uncharted territory.

The first battle of Olympic Games reached the public eye
in July 2010, when news broke of Stuxnet, a creative
worm designed to cause Iran's uranium-enrichment
centrifuges to explode by changing, with software, their
operating parameters. On its heels were Duqu, Wiper, and
Flame, a set of multipurpose tools that collected
intelligence, identified vulnerabilities, and sabotaged
information systems.

In some small way, the strategic vision of Olympic Games
is commendable. Cyberattacks might have reduced Israeli
pressure for conventional military strikes that could
have led to a deadly and protracted war with Iran and
triggered Iran to race for the bomb. The cyberstrategy
might have also been rationalized as providing more
opportunity for diplomacy -- but as with most
experimental programs, events did not go according to
plan and unforeseen consequences soon emerged.

Consider as a case study Stuxnet: First injected into
Iran's computers in June 2009, the worm appears to have
destroyed more than 1,000 of Iran's 5,000 gas
centrifuges, according to data reported by the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, by
drawing from its centrifuge reserves, Iran was able to
replace quickly its destroyed centrifuges and compensate
for the losses, even while the Stuxnet attack was
ongoing.

Indeed, if the measure of Iran's progress toward a
nuclear weapon is its inventory of enriched uranium,
then Iran came out ahead. IAEA data indicates that Iran
was able to boost output enough to reverse all Stuxnet-
induced production losses by March 2010, about eight
months after the attack first began to have an effect.
After the successful eradication of Stuxnet in the
summer of 2010, Iran sustained its heightened level of
production, expanding its low-enriched uranium stockpile
at rates exceeding the pre-Stuxnet trend. If, without
Stuxnet, Iran would have expanded production according
to its historical trajectory, then one would conclude
that the cyberattack wound up enhancing Iran's ability
to make nuclear weapons instead of setting the program
back.

What went wrong? Stuxnet was designed to operate on an
ongoing basis without being detected: a strategy of
steady attrition in the pursuit of time. The worm was
not supposed to leave Iran or be discovered -- but it
soon spread beyond the confines of Iran's nuclear
facilities until, ultimately, members of the computer-
security community identified PDF it. Stuxnet both
failed to operate according to plan and failed to have a
long-term benefit. Perhaps, then, the lesson for the
authors of future cyberweapons is to recognize the
short-lived and unpredictable nature of cyberattacks and
aim for more acute, immediate destruction, rather than
persistent manipulation of another nation's assets -- a
worrisome conclusion suggesting that cyberweapons may be
better suited for terror than for strategic affairs.

After Stuxnet, other components of the cyber affront
were quickly exposed and removed, and Iran's uranium-
enrichment capabilities grew faster than ever. The
American and Israeli leaders who launched the games
suddenly found themselves in a state of panic. Their
ability to influence Iran's nuclear program had dropped
precipitously, yet no diplomatic progress had been made
to ensure a soft landing. Perhaps leaders had grown too
narrowly focused on the play-by-play excitement of a new
cyberattack and too comfortable with relative inaction
on the diplomatic front. Or perhaps leaders began to
feel that a technical fix was potentially within reach,
or at least that cyberattacks could hold Iran's nuclear
program at bay until its leaders capitulated to the
pressure of sanctions. Whatever the likely reasons, the
current reality is that the United States finds the
diplomatic challenge harder than ever before: After
Stuxnet, Iran, with even larger centrifuge reserves, has
more to sacrifice, but now trusts the United States even
less. Furthermore, Israeli threats of armed conflict
have reached a new high. The situation has become
unstable, and Olympic Games has yet to realize any
enduring benefits.

Despite their questionable utility, the cyberattacks
have not been without consequence. Immediately after
Iran admitted to being a victim of Stuxnet, it created a
new Cyber Command of its own. Brig. Gen. Gholamreza
Jalali, the head of Iran's Passive Defense Organization,
said that the Iranian military was prepared "to fight
our enemies" in "cyberspace and Internet warfare," a
formula that may imply aspirations to go on the
offensive. The US Defense Department responded by
announcing a new policy in which cyberattacks against US
assets are considered to be acts of war. More bold steps
into the darkness.

In the world of armaments, cyber weapons may require the
fewest national resources to build. That is not to say
that highly developed nations are not without their
advantages during early stages. Countries like Israel
and the United States may have more money and more
talented hackers. Their software engineers may be more
skilled and exhibit more creativity and critical
thinking owing to better training and education.
However, each new cyberattack becomes a template for
other nations -- or sub-national actors -- looking for
ideas. Stuxnet revealed numerous clever solutions that
are now part of a standard playbook. A Stuxnet-like
attack can now be replicated by merely competent
programmers, instead of requiring innovative hacker
elites. It is as if with every bomb dropped, the
blueprints for how to make it immediately follow. In
time, the strategic advantage will slowly fade and once-
esoteric cyber weapons will slowly become weapons of the
weak.

Whatever the greater nature of cyberwarfare, it is clear
that individual cyberweapons are inherently fragile.
They work because they exploit previously unknown
vulnerabilities. Stuxnet, for example, exploited four
"zero day" vulnerabilities in the Windows operating
system. As soon as Stuxnet made them public, they were
patched and thus no longer available vectors for future
attacks or intelligence gathering. Such vulnerabilities
are also closed through routine software updates and
patches. Powerful hacker entities like the US National
Security Agency must continue to discover new weaknesses
in an attempt to stay ahead, and probably maintain a
sizable list of unpublished vulnerabilities for future
exploitation -- but to what end? These security gaps
apply to all computer systems of a specific type
regardless of national borders. Every vulnerability kept
secret for the purpose of enabling a future cyberattack
is also a decision to let that vulnerability remain open
in one's own national infrastructure, allowing it to be
exploited by an enemy state or even a terrorist hacker.
This raises a basic philosophical question about how
states should approach the question of cyberwarfare:
Should countries try to accrue offensive capabilities in
what amounts to a secret arms race and, in doing so,
hold their own publics at risk? Or should states take a
different tack, releasing knowledge about
vulnerabilities in a controlled way to create patches to
shore up their own digital frontiers?

We are at a key turning point -- the Acheson and
Lilienthal moment of the digital age in which a nation
must decide what role cyberweapons will play in its
national defense. As nations begin to build out
cyberwarfare organizations, they run the risk of
creating bureaucratic entities that will seek to protect
offensive cyber capabilities and in doing so will
necessarily subject their own publics to cyber
vulnerabilities. For states that have little to lose on
the cyber front, an offensive approach may be
interesting. But for the United States and other highly
developed nations whose societies are critically and
deeply reliant on computers, the safe approach is to
direct cyber research at purely defensive applications.
Fortunately, unlike the Acheson and Lilienthal moment of
the nuclear age, the United States can make this choice
unilaterally. The alternative approach, to continue to
launch ambitious cyberattacks, is to cross the Rubicon
with an unpracticed weapon, naked to the attacks of
enemies and terrorists alike.

Editor's note: This article was updated on June 7, 2012.

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