The computer virus.
It’s becoming the weapon of choice in the Middle East, as news continues to stream in about old and new viruses. The latest development comes from The New York Times, where David Sanger reports that the United States and Israel jointly developed the Stuxnet virus that took down Iran’s nuclear centrifuges two years ago.
It appears the line between “covert action” and “act of war” is blurring like at no time in history in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Prior to the news about Stuxnet’s origins, the virus du jour was Flame — Stuxnet’s successor — that has been spotted in Iran, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon. While both the White House and CIA have declined to comment on Flame, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister hinted that cyber-attacks were now fair game when dealing with aggressor states. As a result, the next war in the Middle East may be fought with computers and viruses rather than tanks and fighter jets.
While not as destructive as Stuxnet, which literally caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to go into a death-spin — the Flame virus is reported to be twenty times the size of Stuxnet.
Flame was capable of stealing data from infected computers, logging keystrokes, activating computer microphones to record conversations, and taking screen shots. Fox News’s Jeremy A. Kaplan called Flame "the most sophisticated and powerful cyberweapon to date," filled as it was with nasty things that go bump in the night so to speak — things such as wipers and shredders. What made Flame so effective — until Iran finally found out and reported it to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — was its ability to constantly evolve in order to send home intelligence to an unknown spy-master controlling servers around the world. Then, once it needed to be extracted, the virus could clean out the insides of a computer where it had been hiding, leaving behind no evidence that it had ever been activated.
Amidst all the controversy and mystery surrounding attacks like Stuxnet and Flame, it is becoming increasingly clear that the wars of tomorrow will most likely be fought by young kids at computer screens rather than by young kids on the battlefield with guns. As a result, the United States needs to step up its recruitment of cyber-security experts to prepare for the emerging threat. Echoing this sentiment, government-funded entities such as DARPA have emphasized that a leading priority is to hire additional cyber-security experts and hackers. At the same time, the Pentagon has sought, for its fledgling cyber-warfare unit, to be elevated to full combatant command status, sending a clear signal that cyber-warfare is becoming an even more integral part of the nation’s offensive and defensive repertoire.
While we may never know who the unknown cyber-soldiers were who infiltrated Iran’s industrial computers with Stuxnet and Flame, America cannot be left behind when it comes to recruiting the next generation of coders and hackers. At a time when entities in the Middle East are waking up to the prospect of cyberwarfare, America needs talented recruits capable of clandestinely breaking down another nation’s defenses.
The state-of-the-art in warfare may be changing, but the art of war is not. Real-world spies and physical bombs have simply been replaced with pieces of malicious code that are activated and controlled thousands of miles away, leaving behind a lethal, digital payload that can be activated on-demand.
Consider these famous musings from the legendary Sun Tzu, who literally wrote the book on war:
“All warfare is based on deception. When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
With the new era of cyberweapons, Sun Tzu’s blueprint can be followed almost exactly: A nation can attack when it seems unable to. When conducting cyber-attacks, a nation will seem inactive. When a nation is physically far away, the threat will appear very, very near.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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