Nuke plant sabotaged in high tech strike

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons has been delayed by a computer virus. But a major victory for cyber-warfare could unleash more such attacks.

Meir Dagan, an Israeli spy chief, has revealed that the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons has been set back years. Experts say the damage was done by the Stuxnet virus, described as ‘the most sophisticated cyber-weapon ever deployed.’

Most viruses are relatively crude, designed to steal credit card details or plant advertising – anything, in fact, to make a bit of money for the cyber-criminals who build them.

But when Stuxnet was discovered hiding on computers in 2009 it was clear that this was something different. Its incredible complexity led one security specialist to call it a ‘computer worm on steroids.’

Also, although this worm had infiltrated systems across the world, it didn’t appear to be doing any actual damage. The likely explanation soon became clear: Stuxnet was not developed to make money – it was built by a nation state to carry out targeted and devastating cyber-attacks.

For a while, no one was certain what the target was, or whether the attack had worked. It’s only now, as reports emerge of the damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities, that the full impact of Stuxnet is being revealed.

Until recently, many nations thought the Iranians were on the brink of secretly building an atomic bomb.

If they’d succeeded, a bloodbath in the Middle East could have followed. Iran’s president has said in the past that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map.’

But Stuxnet, after infiltrating Iran’s key nuclear facility at Natanz, appears to have made a number of crucial uranium enrichment machines self-destruct by forcing them to spin at dangerous speeds. With these machines out of action, Iran’s production of nuclear material has slowed dramatically.

Better still, the virus has accomplished this without a shot being fired. The alternative – bombing raids against Iran’s nuclear plants – would have been less effective and might have led to war.

Arms race
For Israel and the US, Stuxnet is very good news. The threat of war in the Middle East has receded and Israeli cities are safe, for the moment, from nuclear attacks. By deploying new weapons like Stuxnet, countries can eliminate threats without having to use military action.

But the president of one online security firm warned that the Stuxnet attack could lead the way for cyber-warfare to ‘escalate to the point of mutually assured destruction.’ Stuxnet won a battle, but it may have unleashed a new kind of war.

You Decide

  1. Is the development of new weapons a cause for fear or celebration? Or both?
  2. How dangerous are nuclear missiles? How far do you think we should be allowed to go in order to stop them spreading? Are cyber-attacks justified? What about assassinations?

Activities

  1. Computer viruses and biological viruses share a name because they both spread 'exponentially'. Imagine a virus starts on one computer and infects one other computer each day. Each infected computer also infects one more computer per day. Can you work out how many computers would be infected after ten days?
  2. The computer virus might be a world changing kind of weapon. Design a poster showing some other weapons that have changed the world and explaining how they did it (Some examples might be gunpowder, the chariot, the atom bomb).

Some People Say...

“We’d be better off if computers had never been invented.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who exactly built Stuxnet?
No one really knows. It seems to have been authored by people from all over the world. On the other hand, the US and Israel both have the resources and the motive to have launched the attack.
And is it the first ever cyber-attack?
No. There have been several cyber-attacks in the past, but they were usually aimed at stealing secret information, or shutting down government websites. Stuxnet is unique in having caused so much genuine physical damage.
Could this sort of attack happen to us?
Definitely. A sufficiently advanced attack could damage anything from airports to oilrigs. The UK’s recent National Security Strategy called cyber-attacks a ‘tier-one threat’ - on a par with international terrorism.
Can we defend against cyber-war?
We can try. At the moment though, cyber-attack is easier than cyber-defence.

Subjects

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