Cyber-Warfare: The Future is Here

December 2nd, 2010 at 8:30 am David Frum | 16 Comments |

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For years, we’ve heard warnings about the threat from cyber-warfare. But as my latest column for The Week argues, the era of cyber-war is here, and it’s quite different than the experts predicted.

Futurists have worried for years about a coming era of “cyber war.” Former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke has even written a recent book on the topic, warning of the prospect of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

That future has now arrived. But it does not quite look the way the experts had predicted.

In November 2010, two cyber-attacks burst into the news within days of each other. The first was carried out against the Islamic Republic of Iran by parties unknown. The attack was revealed in June, but only recently has its devastating effectiveness been fully appreciated.

Here is an extract from a very vivid report by Ed Barnes, writing for the Fox News website. “At Natanz [Iran], for almost 17 months, [the computer virus] Stuxnet quietly worked its way into the system and targeted a specific component – the frequency converters made by the German equipment manufacturer Siemens that regulated the speed of the spinning centrifuges used to create nuclear fuel. The worm then took control of the speed at which the centrifuges spun, making them turn so fast in a quick burst that they would be damaged but not destroyed. And at the same time, the worm masked that change in speed from being discovered at the centrifuges’ control panel… In other words the worm was designed to allow the Iranian program to continue [to run] but never succeed and never to know why.”

Stuxnet was certainly the work of a wealthy and technologically advanced government. Stuxnet’s construction required an estimated 10,000 person-days of work, highly sophisticated coding skills – and very possibly the cooperation of the corporations whose products were targeted. Some think the worm was designed in Israel; some suggest the United States; some believe it came from a consortium of Western intelligence agencies working together: Stuxnet was just that big a project.

Now compare and contrast the other episode of cyberwar: WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks was the work of a disaffected army private and an eccentric on-the-run Australian political radical, aided by a handful of anonymous volunteers. The technology involved was very basic: servers and a thumb drive. Yet WikiLeaks has done large and enduring damage to the United States. It has put at risk the lives of U.S. allies and informants in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

One of Ed Barnes’ sources compared Stuxnet to an F35 fighter in its sophistication. WikiLeaks is more like an improvised explosives device aimed at a high-ranking convoy. WikiLeaks did not require genius, but the people it kills are just as dead. …

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • quell

    wow….all that blather and you dont mention the mention the genius of wikileaks?
    STUXNET is conventional cyber-warfare, a worm. old technology. big whup.
    here is what Assange is trying.
    “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”
    Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”

    that is the ultimate cyber-war. Assange and wikileaks are cyber-insurgents on their own turf, and they are going to kick americas ass just like the other insurgencies we stupidly involved ourselves in, Iraq, A-stan, and Vietnam.
    Assanges religion is not islam or communism……it is hacking, information transparency.
    Perhaps you can read this article better than Douthat did.
    I found Douthats NYT piece on Assanges intentions to be astonishingly dishonest and/or sloppy.
    Although he links the Bady article (which i saw at the dish and found fascinating), he ignores the conclusions Bady draws (ie the results already show success), and deliberately distorts Assanges intentions.
    The US system is the field lab experiment for Assanges design of a paranoia frag bomb on the classified data systems of the US, not on our security system.
    The beauty of Assanges system killer (if it works) is that the more unjust a regime is, the more vulnerable it is to this attack.
    The defense is simply, dont be evil. :)
    I am unsure if Douthat is stupid or lying in his opinion piece.
    perhaps both.
    if this works on the US……it could work on all closed regimes– China, Russia…..and Iran. :)
    it is a quite brilliant mashup of Information theory, systems theory, and SNT (social network theory).
    Instead of trying to hunt Assange down or smear him with fake rape charges, we should be offering him a fucking job.
    Of course, that would mean we actually believed our own bullshytt about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
    We are fucking terrified of information transparency.
    Because we are evil.

  • sinz54

    quell: The beauty of Assanges system killer (if it works) is that the more unjust a regime is, the more vulnerable it is to this attack.

    Assange wouldn’t dare try to expose a truly “unjust” regime like North Korea or Putin’s Russia or China. Because they wouldn’t have any compunctions against having him assassinated. Just like Saddam Hussein used to send his agents abroad to assassinate emigres whom he suspected of plotting against him.

    That’s the error of all you critics of the United States:
    If we were as bad as you say we are,
    the U.S. government would have had you and Julian Assange eliminated a long time ago.

    He would be dead by now.
    And so would you and his other allies.

    Now THAT is how a truly “unjust” regime acts.

    Assange is still alive, only because the United States Government is more decent than you give it credit for.

    Assange is attacking us only because he knows we won’t assassinate him.
    Other regimes aren’t as squeamish.

  • nwahs

    I think, in the end, Assange is going to wind up being a big problem for the anti-American mob. Like an IED, it takes out everything, and Assange has a way of surrounding himself with chic anti-Americanism. We’re watching them blow up now as they try to run away.

  • Watusie

    How are the Republicans going to counteract the threat of cyberwarfare when they reject science and disdain graduates of liberal east coast elite institutions like MIT and hire the products of Liberty and Regent Universities instead? Set up a prayer network for the network?

  • armstp

    The most recent State Department cables leaked to Wikileaks likely did not come from Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier. The government has not charged him for this recent batch of files stolen and the global hacker community is all abuzz that it was someone else, potentially a hacker.

    In addition, as I previously mentioned on FF, it is not unreasonable to think that there could be a larger thing going on here, as there could be governments involved in leaking these latest documents to Wikileaks. Zbigniew Brzezinski thinks governments could be involved in leaking information and he knows a thing or two about the State Department and world affairs.

    “Zbigniew Brzezinski: Who is Really Leaking to Wikileaks?”

    “It’s, rather, a question of whether WikiLeaks are being manipulated by interested parties that want to either complicate our relationship with other governments or want to undermine some governments, because some of these items that are being emphasized and have surfaced are very pointed.

    And I wonder whether, in fact, there aren’t some operations internationally, intelligence services, that are feeding stuff to WikiLeaks, because it is a unique opportunity to embarrass us, to embarrass our position, but also to undermine our relations with particular governments.”

  • armstp


    I don’t know what you are talking about, as Assange is not targeting anyone, including the U.S. He just runs a website the posts information. It is Whistleblowers that come to him with information and he just publishes it. Assange does not control who comes to him.

    For all you Assange/Wikileaks haters out there, I suggest you read this very good piece:

    “The moral standards of WikiLeaks critics”

    Wikileaks/Assange should actually be your hero!

  • balconesfault

    WikiLeaks did not require genius, but the people it kills are just as dead. …

    Well, not until they’re actually dead, don’t you think?

    For what it’s worth, I find it highly disingenuous for politicians and pundits who have for years poo-poohed the collateral deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis due to the anarchy that we released in their country via both our action and inaction as a reasonable sacrifice … to suddenly be up in arms about a much smaller number who might be at risk due to Wikileaks. And that’s a bipartisan critique, for what it’s worth, since there are certainly any number of Dems who fall in this basket.

    From a cold light of realpolitik, we can say the deaths that may result from WikiLeaks are worse than those that have resulted from Shock and Awe, from dismantling of Iraq’s security apparatus, from the “flypaper” strategy of trying to attract Al Qaeda to Iraq so we could fight them there, from helicopters shooting up wedding parties, and hell, from unmanned predator drones. But from a moral perspective we have no legitimacy at all in making that differentiation.

  • balconesfault

    And while I don’t support WikiLeaks, and hope our government can get its act together about protecting truly critical security-related information in the future … Jay Rosen has a great perspective on all of this:

    The main reason why Wikileaks causes so much anxiety with our journalists is that they haven’t really faced the fact that the watchdog press they treasured so much died under George Bush. It failed, and instead of rushing to analyze this failure and prevent it from ever happening again, instead of a truth-and-reconciliation-commission-style effort that would look at how could this happen, mostly what our journalists did, with a few exceptions, was they just went on to the next story. The watchdog press died, and what we have is Wikileaks instead.

    American media has largely been co-opted by the military-industrial complex, to the point of having to have their military experts pre-approved by the DOD before they will put them on the air. If one of our major media outlets had a Daniel Ellsburg approach them today, they would probably immediately begin the research on how to discredit anything he brought to the table, as well as him personally.

  • sinz54

    armstp: I don’t know what you are talking about, as Assange is not targeting anyone, including the U.S.
    The reason you don’t know what I’m talking about,

    is that you scornfully dismiss what international diplomacy is all about.

    You left-wingers constantly advocate “peaceful diplomacy” as an alternative to war–but you recoil from diplomacy’s true nature.

    International diplomacy is like haggling in a bazaar. You bargain and barter with others for goods and services that will advance your position.

    Now I don’t know how YOU bargain with an automobile dealer or the seller of a house when you go to buy one, or how you play the Monopoly board game–but I never show all my cards. I always keep secret:

    – How much I intend to spend

    – How interested I am

    – How many other offers I have available, and

    – Whether my assessment of the seller is that of a hard-nosed bargainer or an easy mark.

    There’s no shame in any of this. That’s how trading has been done since civilization was invented.

    What Assange has done is FORCE the United States to show all its cards, to reveal just what it knows about the other international players and just what it thinks of them. That gives them a tremendous advantage over us, just as if YOU revealed all your cards to the automobile dealer or house seller when you are in the market to buy one.

    My suggestion to you is never to apply to compete on that CBS TV show “Survivor.” On that show, you have to do lots of covert politicking and wheeling and dealing to vote some other player off the island before he can vote you off. (In fact, come to think of it, that’s also like international diplomacy: Obama is trying to vote Osama bin Laden and Ahmedinejad off the planet before they can vote him off.)

    You would be the first one voted off the island–because you don’t believe in keeping secrets. Guaranteed.

  • armstp


    I get all of that. I was not born yesterday.

    My point is that Assange is not particularly targeting anyone. He is just releasing information that is given to him by whistle blowers.

    As for the real impact of these leaks on U.S. diplomacy. Negligible. Gates has been the most level headed on this when he said:

    “I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.”

  • Stan

    Thank you, sinz54, for sharing your knowledge of leftwingers. The country is in debt to you and your fellow patriots.

  • armstp


    Don’t you meant “The country is in debt BECAUSE of you and your fellow patriots.” given that I am sure Sinz54 voted for the Republicans who put this country in debt.

  • quell

    no, conservitards, we would snuff Assange in a heartbeat, except for the insurance file which contains the garani massacre video among other goodies. lawl, Assange isnt even a US citizen …unlike say al-Awlaki. :)
    Assange did the US first to maximize exposure. he wants to make a thousand leaks bloom, and not just in the US.
    im more interested in if what he proposes is technologically and scientifically possible.
    Assanges paranoia frag bomb is an OODA loop killer.
    alien-radio at BJ–
    To massively simplify. Success is built on having a nice open functioning OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. When A paranoid system adds layer after layer of security, bluffs, FUD, etc. at increasing strength as the core of the system is approached, Information flow across the entire system is compromised, and the OODA loops of the component parts start getting more and more out of whack,they respond to information more and more slowly, make decisions slower, or worse always make the SAME decision etc. This is how non linear information systems collapse.
    If you can complete your OODA loop faster than your opponent you will win.
    Quite aside from what else Wikileaks accomplishes it’s an elegent hack.

  • quell

    and sinz, it is true that china and iran are moar evil than us.
    but Assange is maximizing exposure, and the US is the very best target for that.

    Like i said, we should drop the keystone cop routine and offer Assange a job.

  • quell

    Frum, stuxnet is 20 year old technology.
    its snore city.
    Assange’s paranoia frag bomb is a hacktivists dream come true.
    WikiLeaks is the first global Samizdat movement. The truth will surface even in the face of total annihilation.
    about 23 hours ago via web

  • pampl

    armstp : that’s not true. Read wikileaks’ home page, or any of the essays Assange has written. He was very deliberately targeting the US.