The Couch-Potato Wars

Our reputation for “American Innovation” and “Yankee Know-How” was justified again when the world discovered America was the first to launch Cyber Warfare. It’s an entirely new dimension to war, but a logical progression from Predator Drone attacks where soldiers sitting at terminals in Langley, Virginia hunt and kill Al Qaida terrorists on the other side of the world.

By contrast, Cyber Warfare is waged by couch-potato programmers writing computer viruses designed to disrupt the enemy’s computers, and the effects can be catastrophic, as Iran recently discovered (more on that in a moment). Viruses have been around as long as I’ve been programming (there is no link, haha), but never before has a sovereign nation used computer viruses as a form of warfare until now, and the implications are horrific.

We were the first to introduce nuclear warfare, which opened up a terrifying dimension to warfare. The prospect of a nuclear war has consumed an immeasurable amount of money and worldwide attention, even though (thankfully) no nukes were actually used since 1945.

Then after nuking “the Nips” (as they were known) in ‘45, we taught the Japanese how to engage in economic warfare, and how did that turn out? As one prominent economist put it, Capitalism is “controlled warfare,” and Americans are good at it. However, it seems the Chinese, Russians and Indians (from India) might be better at it. They need to catch up first, which is quickly happening.

Like nuclear warfare, Cyber Warfare has fallout, too. The cost will be monstrous to protect ourselves from retaliation—like the cost of protecting ourselves from nuclear warfare—and retaliation is immanent.

Stuxnet Is Here

To see how deadly Cyber Warfare can get, consider Stuxnet. The Washington Post and New York Times recently blew the lid off the mysterious Stuxnet virus plaguing Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities since 2009. The virus was made in America, not Israel as everyone thought at first, although Israel was involved and an Israeli programmer wrote the glitch that eventually led to Stuxnet’s discovery and demise. Without that glitch, the Iranians would still be scratching their heads and wondering why their nuclear enrichment program was failing so miserably.

In case you didn’t already know, Stuxnet is a specialized computer virus written to infect Iranian computers controlling 100s of delicate centrifuges which spin at supersonic speeds, a vital step in the nuclear enrichment process and Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. Stuxnet instructed centrifuges to speed up, causing centrifuge breakdown, but the hideous part was how Stuxnet reported everything was running smoothly to control room operators.

For years, operators were getting fired for carelessness by angry Iranian officials. Thousands of centrifuges were destroyed. At one point, the Iranians were so confused about their Stuxnet-infected instrumentation, they would send someone armed with a flashlight down a long corridor to visually inspect the spinning centrifuges, but what good would that do? What could the inspector say? “I think they’re spinning too fast, but I could be wrong.” At supersonic speeds, the spinning is to fast to inspect visually. “I’m getting dizzy,” is the only reliable report the inspector could give.

The Israeli code introduced a glitch, so when an Iranian technician connected his laptop to the control room computers, Stuxnet jumped onto his computer. He left without knowing he was carrying a deadly computer virus out into the real world. Stuxnet raced across the Internet from the technician’s laptop and was eventually discovered in Germany by security experts, who blew the whistle on it.

Stuxnet mystified the world’s experts at first, because it was designed to work exclusively within the confines of the Iranian control room. It seemed to do nothing else but propagate itself aggressively, like a well-written “worm virus” should do. Eventually they figured out the virus was looking for Iranian targets (IP addresses), and a specific kind of computer, which turned out to be a centrifuge controller (made by Siemens, in Germany).

Retaliation

It was American ingenuity at its best, no doubt, and an amazing story. But it doesn’t have a happy ending, unfortunately.

Retaliation can come in countless ways. A virus can tell a dam to open up, suddenly flooding valleys and sweeping away towns. Or a virus could tell an F14 to fire a sidewinder missile, but only if the F14 is flying over a large city. Obviously a virus could be used to empty bank accounts and other, more conventional virus attacks.

Iran has countless programmers who could launch brilliant schemes while never leaving the comfort of their living room couch. Iran could send some programmers over here to study at a university—and study vulnerabilities in American computer networks. If I were a big boss in Iran, I would be planning retaliation, and a big one.

Should elementary school kids begin practicing for “Cyber Attacks”, like we did in the ‘60s for nuclear attacks? How can we possibly defend ourselves against cyber attacks? The vulnerabilities are endless. It should make for an interesting future, and pave the way for an outcry for global unity (i.e., control).

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2 thoughts on “The Couch-Potato Wars

  1. Adam Esterle

    Interesting post. I’m offended by the term couch-potato to describe us programmers. 🙂 If we can’t even afford the spending for one type of warfare, how are we to afford it for two?

  2. Joel

    I have heard about this in the news; how Obama gave the OK and how these kinds of details are being leaked from White House sources. Apparently, in an election year it looks good to be approving couch potato wars in the global war on terrorism!

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