HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Cyberwarfare in the Middle East

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



  1. I hadn’t really heard of these alleged cyber warfare attacks before this class, so I find this post to be very interesting. I suppose some new problems that cyberwarfare could cause to arise would be this total removal of humans from war, leading to a certain Ender’s Game-like situation in which massive death can occur without any direct and immediate threat to the attacker. I guess we are already seeing this with drones. And the siphoning of massive amounts of confidential information by the cyberattacker is definitely very worrisome; this could lead to mass ambush and loss of life. But I also wonder who would get the “edge” in these situations; cyberwarfare could potentially be leveling the game field in modern warfare. Resources and trained intelligence are definitely needed, but not the extent that are needed for warships, or tanks, etc. The USA definitely can’t take down a hacker with its extensive military. Either way, it’ll be interesting to observe these new developments.

  2. alex segura says:

    I think warfare becoming an very expensive episode of battlebots would be preferable in all cases to the alternative of actual human beings killing each other, although I would share Trisha’s concerns of the intermediate phases where humans use robots to kill other humans.

    A natural second question would be: Going into the future, who will program and control the robots? The OP seems to assume that the current world system of nation states as primary political agents will persist without change while technology advances incessantly, changing nearly everything else. While this is a sensible assumption for the near term, on longer time scales it seems less certain.

    The internet is shrinking the world to a topological point, that is, information transfer, be it cultural or commercial, is nearly instantaneous. As human beings continue do business as well as partake in virtual recreation — playing games or just commenting on each others blogs — with others from around the globe, I think their sense of national identity will increasingly be seen as a vestigial, if not parasitic, thought structure from a less connected world, and will therefore be passed down to subsequent generations with decreasing frequency.

    What sort of world system emerges from these conditions? So… Is the answer to “who will build the weapons of the future?” simply “no one?”

    I have some thoughts on the matter, but I’m starting to fear that this sort of thing might be orthogonal to the purpose of this blog. I’m posting anyway as I don’t have room on my hard drive for this sort of nonsense.

  3. I agree with Trisha’s comment above, in which even though these cyber attacks are not causing a loss of life, they will eventually lead to it (it just depends on which side decides to go first). Technology will continue to evolve regardless if we want it too.

    I’m very interested in the drone capture case, since I plan to go into the drone career myself after college. It’s a very serious issue when an enemy has the ability to take control over your technology, it’s embarrassing to be honest, which is why I believe that the United States is denying they ever lost a drone to Iran. It’s very possible to alter a drone’s GPS home position or mission, and it’s scary how easily drones can fly between radar without knowing it is there. It won’t be long before both sides of war are using drones on each other, and like what I said earlier, their won’t be loss of life at first, but I believe it will eventually lead to it.

  4. jkipp3 says:

    While I am glad that bloodshed is avoided through cyberwarfare, it is disconcerting to know that much of international conflict is now going on behind closed doors. The press (and therefore the public) is becoming increasingly unaware of these goings-on, and although clandestine operations have always been kept secret, I fear that this technology could lead to governments invading privacy rights of their own citizens, e.g. the Patriot Act.

    – James Kipp

  5. nholdaway3 says:

    I agree with James in that there is less news of these cyber attacks than there should be, but I think it is because of the press not reporting them. I remember reading about both Flame and Stuxnet online but never saw any prime time mention of them. Like the comic in the blog, a majority of people do not know how viruses work except that they can steal their private information and they are hard to detect. So I think the reason the media shirks away from mentioning viruses is due to people not knowing about/fearing them.

  6. mjuren3 says:

    I know this might be slightly tangential to the subject of the blog, but who I see becoming the major power brokers in this new age of cyber warfare are internet companies like Google who are known to keep records of an individual’s online activity and have access to vast amounts of personal information on such a significant number of the world’s population. Whichever government/organization is able to control these companies by buying them off or getting them to side with them will inevitably have the advantage going into this era.

  7. kolson23 says:

    I honestly have never really considered the idea of cyber warfare as being significant, but i guess it is coming to that. I feel that this could cause just as much or even more damage then the way fighting is currently conducted. Your example of the nuclear power-plant spinning out of control and damaging itself definitely had me thinking. Is it possible to put a plant into meltdown? Cause even more damage to the surrounding area? I don’t know anything about reactors, but I could Imagine some serious damage could be done by someone messing with one even though they probably have many safety features built in. In this era, many things are run by computers, if heavy precautions are not taken, someone could reek havoc.

  8. ojanus3 says:

    This blog is relieving and alarming; initially it is relieving because I am glad to hear that lives are not being unnecessarily, however, when I thought about he idea of cyber warfare in more depth I think that it is kind of alarming. Cyber warfare is something that happens with out the majority of the population knowing anything about. If these viruses are able to enter protected government computers are they just roaming through the general publics? I agree with James Kipp’s comment about how this seems like something that can start breaking privacy rights.

  9. shaimsn says:

    Hey guys, reading this article reminded me of something I read sometime last year: About 6 months ago, one of the viruses implemented in an Iranian Nuclear Plant shut down all of the computers in it and played a song from ACDC at full volume.

    I dont know why, but I find that kind of original maybe? What do you guys think?

    -Shai M

  10. flambert3 says:

    While less conventional war and causalities are avoided through this it most certainly can lead to it. Say a virus infects a nuclear reactors computer and does not do exactly what it is supposed to or exactly what it is supposed to and prevents the plant from effectively cooling and stopping the reaction causing nuclear fall out. The country responsible should expect a complete conventional war in retaliation. Or what if this virus is not tracked surely someone is going to get blamed and maybe falsely causing more trouble. There is a lot that can be done through technology and being a screen no one knows how you are. While we advance it is also important to do it responsibly knowing that others might possibly react in ways we didn’t see coming.

    -Frederick Lambert

  11. jdowling6 says:

    I have known about computer viruses for some time know, however, I didn’t realize how brutal they can be when paired with a vulnerable nuclear reactor or predator drone. It’s scary to think that computer vulnerabilities can be the Achille’s heal of any nation with nuclear power, or the prime mechanism of one nation spying on the other without physically being present. I believe nuclear plants should be operated offline now, just by reading this article. Drones however, when operating from a distance, need to have better protection [easier to say than do, yes, I know] because taking them offline is out of the question, obviously, for them to operate. Warfare in the cyber sense, In my view, can be prevented from the get go by separating things such as WMD from being able to go online [remotely connect]. In another sense, that of information stealing, is however inevitable and the only way to maintain a balance of power between nations in terms of collecting secrets is sadly, to hack back and collect information about whoever is collecting information from you. [Seriously, hasn’t everyone at least gotten a virus on their own personal computer at least once in there life?]

  12. I agree with what Chris and Trisha say. I think that cyberwarfare does not prevent a real war to happen. Instead, it may cause a unnecessary war because of the suspicious “spy” activities one of the two sides have done. Furthermore, as Gelvin says in the book, as long as power is balanced and most states are benefited, change is unwanted. But war means change. Therefore, most states would not easily go to war right now (since there are no major international unbalance between strong states, and weak states do not have enough power for a war). However, cyberwarfare would be very useful for war time. Anyway, I hope there will be no war in the future. Like what John says in his blog, “Wars are never fought solely between militaries; there are always civilian casualties and collateral damage”.

  13. religion317 says:

    Interesting blog post and discussion. All sorts of issues are coming up here: conventional vs. cyber war, drone and the ethics of warfare, internet privacy, secrecy and shadow. (And for the record, I find the idea of an Iranian nuclear facility suddenly blaring ACDC from every speaker hilarious.) It’s interesting to read Marion and Alex’s comments together. The future of the nation-state as a political agent, and the rising influence of non-state entities such as Google (or al-Qaeda… or Greenpeace for that matter). As we are beginning to learn in class, the nation-state was not historically inevitable, nor is its history particularly long.

  14. drippykins says:

    Good post. This is a really interesting topic because cyber-warfare is and will continue to be a critical component of war. Our entire military is network-centric. Electronic systems no longer supplement our forces, rather our forces are almost completely run on computers and communication networks. Right now it’s unclear how much of an effect it will have on certain capabilities such as long range assets (drones), missile systems , satellites, communication, etc., but instances like the drone recovery in Iran really make you wonder if we’re prepared for cyber-warfare. With such a network-centric military, the smallest of vulnerabilities could put us in the stone age and leave us in the dark during a conflict.

  15. tnatoli3 says:

    Being a Computer Science major, this is the kind of components to war that interests me. I took an Information Security course last semester and we learned how it is possible to hack a car and controls it’s steering with a handheld device using a blue tooth connection. It is scary to think about how easily this “bloodless” tactic could be switched by using Cyberwarfare. A virus obtaining data as you mentioned gives the attacking nation a great advantage, but with almost everything connected to a network the possibilities of winning a war with computers seems like a viable alternative. Obviously guns and soldiers cannot really be hacked (yet), but the outcome of a battle could be swayed by who has the most knowledge and infiltration of technology.

  16. Kaitlyn Johnson says:

    Im no computer expert but I believe cyber warfare is a growing threatening concern to the world. If the countries can cause US drones to peacefully land to then be confiscated and used to recreate the technology or advance with new technologies, there’s a serious issue. Knowledge is power these days and the more a country knows and keeps secret the more likely opposing groups will want to steal that information. In addition, its not even completely something that is country vs. country. People can make millions stealing secrets and selling them that could possibly affect the lives and safety of citizens. Although I don’t see an alternative to using technology and computers, it does make information much more vulnerable and an alternative or compromise should be created to protect extremely valuable information.

  17. njones47 says:

    Cyberwarfare is increasingly common in wars, and will probably be an increasing trend in warfare. As defense technology increases, the potential threat of cyberwarfare increases as well. The more powerful things we have that are controlled electronically, the more likely it is that one of them will be hackable. Hopefully our security measures for these things keeps up with any hacking threats, and nothing like this will happen.

  18. phillipscheng says:

    As of late a related attack is by the Red October group Their targets are wide ranging and appear to be attacking most anything.

  19. kledbetter6 says:

    Another interesting facet of cyberwarfare is the role that third parties can play. Here is an interesting article about the group Anonymous and their involvement with the takedown of Syrian government websites:

    It will be interesting to see how governments in the future control groups like this. Will this be another way in which the internet will make rebellions easier? And will the actions of these groups be seen as the responsibility of a single country? Though I’m wary to believe that cyberwarfare will eliminate conventional military warfare altogether, cyberwarfare will no doubt play a part in the power struggles between nations.

  20. jlester7 says:

    I was particularly interested in the non lethal aspect of this type of warfare. I believe in the wrong hands, these capabilities could be just as deadly as conventional warfare. If Iran really did seize control of our drone, what was to stop them from turning it against our allies or even our own troops? I recently heard from a friend that the US is making huge overhauls to our military to fight these kinds of wars because they are now a serious threat to national security. It will be interesting to see the implications and future of this type of warfare. How much will countries be willing to pay for the brain power behind these attacks? After all, it comes down to people making these programs and viruses. I agree completely that tech giants like google will have a role to play.

  21. nathenj65 says:

    I agree with most of the posts in that i had not really heard about these two cyber attacks. So when i first read this post i got really interested because this has been a subject that has interested me in the past. I think it is a great and scary thought at the same time that countries will be conducting cyber raids on other countries. For one this is a great thing because it takes needless deaths out of the equation because in order to get your information instead of sending in spies you can have hackers gather information through those means. It also allows for each country to be better informed on the strengths of their enemies which might allow for less attacks due to the realization that a stalemate was reached in most cases. The part of this that i fear is yes, a human life is a precious thing but hackers no a days are able to do some seriously bad things to people that they don’t like. This could bring about economic turmoil for countries purely through the weapon of hackers

  22. sstephenson3 says:

    There are some very important points made here. Cyberwarfare is the new frontier of conflict, this is more or less a fact. However, what we must take into account is that while there may be bloodless conflict in this fashion, there will never be such a thing as a bloodless war. It would be nice if nations butting heads was nothing more than a few strokes on a keyboard, but for the soldiers on the ground and the recipients of the air strikes that we, the USA, constantly order in that part of the world, war will always be a gritty, bloody, and altogether nasty affair. It is important to remember this because in our day and age, war and death by conflict is not constantly in your face at home, it is something that happens somewhere else to people who we venerate as soldiers and label as enemies. I personally believe that this is a terrible trend and tends to make conflict, and war for that matter, seem less graphic and real. Please, remember to thank veterans for their service, but understand, when we send those people out to that part of the world, they are government trained instruments of death and their job, in the aggregate, is to ruin someone’s day, if not their entire life. For them, these facts are very, VERY real.

  23. jbholleman says:

    A lot of the “cyberwarfare” is just sabotage, and that has been going on as long as there has been war. The electronic side of things just gives more avenues to go about this tactic. The two main ways of getting around this are keeping networks isolated and having better encryption than the enemy has decryption. Countries with advanced science and technologies are at a distinct advantage in this case, but events like the drone take down shows that it is getting easier to run these types of cyberwarfare attacks. With technology advancing as quickly as it is, it is hard to see how things will change, but it seems clear that war will continue to become more autonomous.

  24. chai164 says:

    This post raises more questions than it answers for me and I’d like to hear what other people think.

    Why aren’t these ‘cyber wars’ or ‘cyber crimes’ talked about as much as conventional war? Is it because most people don’t understand enough about it to be interested or keep up? Is it because it’s easy to keep undercover from those who aren’t experts? Is it really just computer science and info security nerds (me included) who maintain an interest in this kind of thing?

    Given the impact cyber warfare can have, I think it’s amazing that it isn’t talked about, publicized, or in the media as much as bomb blasts, gunmen, and riots. There needs to be a better awareness of the impact cyber crime can have.

    • tdkohlbeck says:

      To respond to your first question, I think “cyber warfare” isn’t talked about as much for a few reasons. First, this sort of conflict is relatively new. Most of us are about as old as the internet itself. Secondly, there’s the human element. Twenty-seven people being killed in a blast hits a lot closer to home than computers being hacked into. And finally, there’s definitely a barrier to understanding exactly what all this cyber attack stuff is (as the xkcd comic points out above). Of course, I don’t know any of this for sure. Just my hypotheses.

  25. kmh3 says:

    It really is fascinating to me how far technology (and those who develop and work with it) has come. This form of war requires so much more intellect than simply dropping bombs from planes.
    Though it is true that this bloodless form of war could inevitably cause real-world attacks based on no other reason than suspicion of hacking, on the whole however, if there must be a battle a bloodless battle is better than a bloody one. Less death and destruction in war – or at least concentrated on a specific and confirmed target – is always a good thing in my opinion.

  26. mnicholas6 says:

    With the advances in technology, cyberwarfare seems like the next logical step. Think of how many things are dependent on computers. Take enough of those down, and watch chaos ensue.

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