Did Stuxnet become America’s cyberwarfare Manhattan Project?

Cyberdefense consultant, Ralph Langner, following a three-year investigation on Stuxnet, suggests that what was originally conceived as a stealth weapon designed to cause chronic instability in Iran’s nuclear enrichment process, may have undergone a strategic reconfiguration. The project took on an objective much wider in scope than its physical target: demonstrating the United State’s preeminent position in engaging in cyberwarfare.

Looking at the two major versions of Stuxnet in context leaves a final clue — a suggestion that during the operation, something big was going on behind the scenes. Operation Olympic Games — the multiyear online espionage and sabotage campaign against the Iranian nuclear program — obviously involved much more than developing and deploying a piece of malware, however sophisticated that malware was. It was a campaign rather than an attack, and it appears that the priorities of that campaign shifted significantly during its execution.

When my colleagues and I first analyzed both attacks in 2010, we first assumed that they were executed simultaneously, maybe with the idea to disable the cascade protection system during the rotor-speed attack. That turned out to be wrong; no coordination between the two attacks can be found in the code. Then we assumed that the attack against the centrifuge drive system was the simple and basic predecessor after which the big one was launched, the attack against the cascade protection system. The cascade protection system attack is a display of absolute cyberpower. It appeared logical to assume a development from simple to complex. Several years later, it turned out that the opposite was the case. Why would the attackers go back to basics?

The dramatic differences between both versions point to changing priorities that most likely were accompanied by a change in stakeholders. Technical analysis shows that the risk of discovery no longer was the attackers’ primary concern when starting to experiment with new ways to mess up operations at Natanz. The shift of attention may have been fueled by a simple insight: Nuclear proliferators come and go, but cyberwarfare is here to stay. Operation Olympic Games started as an experiment with an unpredictable outcome. Along the road, one result became clear: Digital weapons work. And different from their analog counterparts, they don’t put military forces in harm’s way, they produce less collateral damage, they can be deployed stealthily, and they are dirt cheap. The contents of this Pandora’s box have implications much beyond Iran; they have made analog warfare look low-tech, brutal, and so 20th century.

In other words, blowing the cover of this online sabotage campaign came with benefits. Uncovering Stuxnet was the end of the operation, but not necessarily the end of its utility. Unlike traditional Pentagon hardware, one cannot display USB drives at a military parade. The Stuxnet revelation showed the world what cyberweapons could do in the hands of a superpower. It also saved America from embarrassment. If another country — maybe even an adversary — had been first in demonstrating proficiency in the digital domain, it would have been nothing short of another Sputnik moment in U.S. history.

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