For years now, Defense Department officials have refused to discuss the details of the Pentagon’s offensive capabilities in the cyber arena, even as they railed against all the cyber attacks against the United States’ ever-vulnerable networks.
It seems however, that the Pentagon is happy to let actions speak for it. Earlier this spring, news reports emerged saying that it was indeed the U.S. and Israel who were behind the Stuxnet worm that famously wreaked havoc on Iran’s attempts to enrich uranium for its nuclear program. That worm was designed to make its way accross copmuter networks around the globe before infiltrating the specific type of Seimens-made SCADA computer that controlled the speeds at which Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges spun at. Once inside said computers, the infamous worm reprogrammed the centrifuges to spin at the wrong speeds where they would wreck the enrichment process.
At its time, Stuxnet was considered one of the most sophisticated cyber-weapons ever discovered. It was so sophisticated that analysts speculated that it had to have been made by an organization with the backing of significant government and/or corporate resources.
Well, as you know, Stuxnet has just been topped in sophistication by another American and Israeli-made virus that targeted Iran’s nuclear program. Flame.
So it seems that the virus that has been described as ushering in a new era cyber-warfare by experts at places like Kaspersky Labs, was one of the U.S.’ cyber weapons.
As we wrote last month:
showing that it can take snapshots of an infected computer’s display screen, record audio conversations using the computer’s microphones as well as steal normal computer files.
However, it can also be remotely re-programmed to switch from intel-gathering to offensive mode, turning itself into a cyber weapon capable of disrupting its targets’ basic functions, much like the Stuxnet virus did to Iran’s Uranium enrichment centrifuges.
All of these advanced features in one worm led Internet security firm Kaspersky to call the arrival of Flame, “another phase in this [cyber ]war, and it’s important to understand that such cyber weapons can easily be used against any country. Unlike with conventional warfare, the more developed countries are actually the most vulnerable in this case.”
Or as former DT cyber writer Kevin Coleman quoted another analyst as saying, “Flame redefines cyber espionage, it makes all the other software in that category look like cheap toys!”
What’s most impressive — or scary — is that, according to the Washington Post, Flame — which has been hiding out there undiscovered for years as a routine Microsoft software update — is just the tip of the iceberg in a massive cyber espionage effort against Iran.
The massive piece of malware secretly mapped and monitored Iran’s computer networks, sending back a steady stream of intelligence to prepare for a cyberwarfare campaign, according to the officials. The effort, involving the National Security Agency, the CIA and Israel’s military, has included the use of destructive software such as the Stuxnet virus to cause malfunctions in Iran’s nuclear-enrichment equipment.
The emerging details about Flame provide new clues to what is thought to be the first sustained campaign of cyber-sabotage against an adversary of the United States.
“This is about preparing the battlefield for another type of covert action,” said one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, who added that Flame and Stuxnet were elements of a broader assault that continues today. “Cyber-collection against the Iranian program is way further down the road than this.”
Who knows what other types of cyber weapons we’ll see coming from the U.S. or what types of weapons will now be unleashed on the U.S. Remember, reality can often be stranger than fiction. However, as impressive and worrisome as these cyber weapons may be, they might just be playing a role in reducing the risk of a potentially much more destructive shooting war breaking out, as the Post points out.
The U.S.-Israeli collaboration was intended to slow Iran’s nuclear program, reduce the pressure for a conventional military attack and extend the timetable for diplomacy and sanctions.