June 13, 2012

Flame Out

In the Terminator series of movies, the Pentagon creates a supercomputer named SkyNet to control its nuclear weapons. Instead, Skynet decides to take matters into its own hands and initiates a series of nuclear strikes designed to wipe out mankind. You think, well, that was pretty dumb, turning over control of our nuclear weapons to a computer. We'd never do anything that stupid in real life. Really?

We are seeing a similar scenario unfold today. Once again, the Pentagon is at the center of the plot, aided and abetted by the Israelis, or at least that is what appears to be the case. The instruments of our destruction are two pieces of malware called Stuxnet and Flame, Internet viruses created to disrupt Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Researchers claim to have found stretches of identical code in both pieces of malware, linking the two conclusively together. Since the United States has all but claimed responsibility for Stuxnet, it follows that Flame is also their progeny.

The problem with waging cyberwar is obvious. Once these viruses are discovered, people who know a hell of a lot more about these things than you and I do immediately begin picking the code apart. The hard part is creating it. The easier part is replicating it in any number of variations on the theme. How soon before this code appears in the wild, attacking our own infrastructure? Didn't anyone think about this before they pulled the trigger on this project?

An interesting sidebar to this story is apparent unfolding efforts by the Russians and Chinese to use this incident to switch control of the internet from the American-friendly International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to a UN body known as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Russia and China both have an interest in quelling freedom of speech via the Internet, so anything that gains them more access to the private corridors of decision-making on Internet policies is good news for them. It may be worth noting that the lab most responsible for uncovering the link between Stuxnet and Flame is Russian.

The first use of cyberwar weapons by the U.S. may be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. We not only forfeit the moral high ground in yet another area, but we give our enemies an ideal weapon to attack our own industrial and commercial infrastructure. A dumber idea is hard to imagine. Gold, guns, and 100 acres on Montana is starting to look real good.

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