It is precisely the absence of a constraining political
framework around cyber warfare that makes cyberspace
so attractive as a place in which to pursue aggressively
cultural, religious, economic, social and even – paradoxically – political goals.
– From the executive summary of ‘On Cyber Warfare‘
New details emerged today of the cyber attacks on the email accounts of hundreds of US and other Asian government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists. Google said the relatively simple phishing attempts, which involved leading the target to a fake login page to obtain the user’s login information, have been taking place for months. The GMail provider also pinpointed the source of the attacks as Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province and host of the regional military command center.
These attacks are not the first time Google has accused Chinese hackers of spying on the users of its GMail service. In 2009 it traced attacks on Chinese human rights activists to an IP address at Lanxiang Senior Technical School in Jinan, according to The Telegraph. These latest attacks come in the midst of a cyber security review in both the UK and US. BBC recently reported that the Ministry of Defence in the UK plans to employ hundreds of experts to help improve the UK government’s electronic defenses. A cyber attack on major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin further emphasized the rapidly increasing need for robust cyber defense mechanisms. The US earlier this week announced that cyber attacks sponsored by another country can constitute an act of war and reserved the right to use military actions as a result of such attacks. Washington plans to issue a more detailed statement regarding its cyber warfare policies later this month.
This most recent round of Chinese cyber attacks underline what is quickly becoming a major theme in modern political engagement: the cyber threat. As Stars and Stuxnet ravage Iranian nuclear facilities and fears of a potential equally powerful but less specifically-targeted virus raise concerns over the security of infrastructure ranging from power plants to telecommunications, leaders around the world are having to scramble to bolster defenses on a new front of vulnerability. As noted in the Chatham House paper quoted above, this new cyber front is the perfect platform for asymmetric warfare where traditional military might is all but meaningless. This notion of a whole new dimension of threats engaging in asymmetric warfare should certainly weigh heavily in American military commanders’ and policy-makers’ minds; the US has struggled with two other types of asymmetric engagements in recent years: terrorism and insurgency.
A new computer virus that seemed to be targeting Iranian government facilities has been discovered. Iranian officials announced last week that they had detected a new attempt to infiltrate government computers. Public acknowledgement of this new virus, now called ‘Stars’, comes less than a year after the 2010 revelation that a separate virus, Stuxnet, was responsible for the difficulty the Persian nation has encountered in operating its uranium centrifuges. Iranian officials, along with several prominent western cyber-security experts, have attributed the origin of Stuxnet to the United States and Israel. Neither the US nor Israel has accepted responsibility for the virus. Little information is as yet publicly available about the newer Stars virus although it reportedly takes the form of official-looking data and is ‘hard to eliminate in its original form.’ [GSN]
Iran has acknowledged that its enrichment efforts had been delayed by the earlier Stuxnet virus. The virus violently manipulates the spinning speed of rotors inside centrifuges used to separate isotopes of uranium. While doing so, it reports normal operating conditions to the control mechanism thus avoiding an emergency shutdown. The P1 centrifuges being used by Iran are highly sensitive machines and the sudden increases and decreases in speed that Stuxnet subjected them to would have undoubtedly rendered them inoperable. Some speculate that code contained in Stuxnet could cause the centrifuges to literally explode.
Ralph Langer explains Stuxnet
Experts believe that Stuxnet has set back any Iranian program towards a nuclear weapon – real or imagined – by several years. This no doubt gives Israel some breathing room in its debate about a possible preventive strike, ala its universally condemned 1981 destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor which was under construction in Iraq. (It’s worth noting that while the Osirak facility was destroyed, many contend that the strike may have actually accelerated Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.) Regardless, with the emergence of this new cyber attack, it’s clear that somebody has decided to devote considerable resources to sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program. The level of sophistication and explicit objectives of these viruses, coupled in consideration with last year’s assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, certainly limits that list of potential somebodies.
In an Israeli cockpit during Operation Opera