Monday, January 17, 2011

Cyber Espionage

In a report yesterday the New York Times revealed that the Stuxnet worm may have been designed by the Israelis with the aid of U.S. intelligence. The worm raised alarm bells in the cyber-security community last year when it attacked nuclear power facilities in Iran.

Stuxnet was designed to effect computer control systems manufactured by the German company Siemens. Such systems are used around the world to manage critical infrastructure like water supplies and power plants.

There have been incidents of the Stuxnet worm appearing in the United States, India, Germany, Australia, Finland and the U.K. among other countries. But Iran has suffered a higher incidence of attacks than all other countries combined with some 62,867 computers having been infected. It is believed that the purpose of the attacks against Iran was to spin the centrifuges of nuclear power facilities out of control and cripple Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weaponry.

If these allegations about the U.S. and Israel prove true, as they very likely are, it represents a good illustration of the changing manner in which espionage and covert military operations will be conducted in the 21st century. Tasks that would once have been accomplished by commando raids or black-ops spy teams can now be handled by professional hackers in government employ.

The attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities which took place last summer are thought to have been a kind of test run. What Stuxnet's creators, whoever they really are, ultimately have in mind for the worm remains unclear. However if it is Israeli in origin than the prevention of Iran from attaining nuclear arms is one likely objective.

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