In any war, disrupting the enemy’s ability to communicate is a main objective. In the American Civil War, for example, this meant cutting telegraph lines. In World War II, this meant jamming radios. The natural progression of this is for militaries to attack the communication systems of the modern age: computers connected by the Internet.
One of the first such attacks against a country was a denial-of-service, or DoS, attack against Estonia in April, 2007. First, government websites were taken down. Then the computer systems belonging to television and newspaper stations went down. Finally, those of schools and banks were targeted.
In the Summer of 2008, Russia launched DoS attacks against Georgia ahead of its conventional military invasion. These attacks were designed to cripple Georgia’s limited internet infrastructure, though the effects of the attacks are not entirely known.
But a DoS attack isn’t really “hacking”. All the attacker is doing, basically, is repeatedly loading a web page so quickly that the server can’t keep up. The attacker isn’t stealing information or directly causing physical damage.
But in the last few years, we’ve started to see more sophisticated attacks on computer systems that can more appropriately be called “cyberwarfare.” The most dramatic example of this was Stuxnet, a computer virus that targeted Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for its nuclear program. To enrich uranium for a use in a nuclear reaction, the natural uranium is spun in centrifuges at very high speeds. As one would imagine, the details are vague, but it appears that Stuxnet was developed by some Western power – presumably Israel and the United States – to cause the centrifuges to spin out of control to the point that the centrifuges damaged themselves. At the same time, the virus caused the control computers to show that the centrifuges were actually spinning at normal speeds.
Stuxnet was allegedly part of an ongoing cyberwarfare campaign known as Operation Olympic Games. Started under the Bush administration and continued by President Obama, Olympic Games has a noble goal: accomplish with computer viruses the same objectives as conventional military airstrikes, but without the loss of life.
In this spirit, Israel and the United States – allegedly – also developed a virus known as Flame. Flame is very similar to Stuxnet in its ability to infiltrate sensitive computers, but is devoted to silently collecting and transmitting information back to the attacker. Flame was discovered by Iranian security experts only a few months ago and continues to infect the personal computers of senior Iranian officials. This computer virus is achieving the same objectives as a network of spies and informants, but without any secret agent ever entering the country.
Iran, in turn, has responded with its own incredibly sophisticated cyber attack against the United States. In December, 2011, Iran (again, allegedly) tricked a top-secret CIA stealth reconnaissance drone into landing in Iran. Iranian engineers first jammed the drone’s communications. Then, when it switched to autopilot, they sent fake GPS data to the drone to make it believe that it was landing at its own air base. Without firing a shot, one of America’s most secret weapons was captured.
This “cyberwar” has been ongoing for years, and there are surely countless other attacks and operations conducted by both sides that we will never know about. But in my opinion, this is a good thing. Israel has long been suspected of lethal attacks within Iran, and, given the rhetoric of the two nations’ leaders, it is not much of a stretch to think that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could have led to a conventional war. I believe that, in general, humans should be removed from war as much as possible. Wars are never fought solely between militaries; there are always civilian casualties and collateral damage.
That being said, there are certainly very serious issues that arise from “bloodless” war. The first issue is that no one really knows who is at war. From leaks and accusations, it appears that the United States and Israel are behind Stuxnet and Flame, and that Iran hacked the American drone. But there really is no way to prove this. And because there are no casualties for the attacker, there is less incentive not to attack.
Regardless of the ethical issues, the age of cyberwarfare is upon us. And with the possibility of wars being fought with viruses and hackers, the balance of power in the Middle East and throughout the world stands to change dramatically.
– John Girata