The Era of Cyber-Warfare

The tip of the Iceberg was revealed in 2010, when the “Suxnet” virus was discovered and found culpable of setting back Iran’s Uranium enrichment program. Many subsequent hints gave responsibility of its creation to Israel and the USA. The sophisticated virus infected many systems worldwide but about 60% of them were in Iran. It specifically targeted software from the Siemens Company’s products, but no other customer of theirs has been affected. The only damage was to Iran’s sophisticated centrifuges, which was based on embargoed hardware that was procured secretly. The virus had caused the centrifuge to spin faster than planned, and, in so doing, destroyed them. All experts agree that the Suxnet virus is an extremely specific and sophisticated weapon, designed by leading experts backed by governmental resources. It is very precise in its target and efficient in its dissemination. Iran has admitted some damage and stated publicly that “an electronic war has been launched against Iran”. It is mildly ironic, as Iran has also boasted in the past to have “the world’s second largest cyber- army”.

New viruses, related by experts to Suxnet, have been discovered since: “Duqu” in 2011 and “Flame” in 2012. Those seem to have more spying purposes, collecting data from the infected computers. The Flame virus did contain a “kill” function to make it disappear when discovered. Information has surfaced linking all those viruses in a joint US-Israeli operation code-named: “Olympic Games”. The US and Israel are therefore probably at war with Iran right now; albeit only a cyber-war, but war nonetheless. It should be noted by the reader that the USA explicitly considers a cyber-attack as a casus belli for conventional war!

The US has set-up the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) to coordinate all aspects of cyber-warfare. It is clear that the Department of Defense takes the matter very seriously. And things are happening below the quiet surface: a Chinese-based spying computer network named “GhostNet” was identified. This followed Operation Aurora, in which Chinese hackers targeted Google and at least twenty other US companies, on the background of a row with Chinese policies. It is well-known to US Intelligence that China invests hugely in Cyber-warfare. Their cyber-warfare units spread viruses and malware, mainly to collect information from civilian and governmental companies. And many cases of industrial espionage have been documented.

But all the many examples that have filtered to the media are very mild when compared to what could be done in case of open warfare or a terrorist operation. Besides the obvious espionage and data gathering possibilities that a modern society offers to hackers, there are real physical dangers. All the infrastructure of a modern country is based on computers and telecommunications. A well-targeted virus could cripple the power distribution network for weeks. Communications can be virtually brought to a halt. Planes, cars and other modes of transportation are highly dependent on microchips that could be destroyed by an Electro Magnetic Pulse bomb, or hijacked. The military could be crippled, its drones hi-jacked, its planes made un-operational. Doomsday scenarios are only limited by the reader’s imagination. If the Israelis have succeeded in remotely crippling Iranian centrifuges in a deeply buried secret bunker, what is out of reach?

The importance of spyware, cyber-security and cyber-warfare will only become clearer as time passes. More examples of below-the-surface skirmishes will gradually find their way to the media. We are now in the era of electronic war. New ways will be found to infect our computers and spy on us. One of the looming threats is the hardware virus: a little tweaking with a very complex microchip can make for an undetectable virus. This is the basis of the new thriller by Marc Brem: “Rain Fund”. The reality described therein is just around the corner…