World’s most powerful cyber weapon is discovered

This kind of computer code forms the basis of the dangerous Flame virus.

A complex computer virus, newly discovered by security experts, may be the most powerful piece of malware ever created. The find raises new fears over the potential of cyber warfare.

A dangerous new weapon has been discovered. Already, it is attacking crucial hotspots in nations around the world. It employs the highest levels of technology, and fills its targets with fear. Yet no-one has been killed by it directly, and it has never been witnessed in action.

What is this strange weapon? Experts have called it Flame – and it is the most complex and powerful computer virus the world has ever known.

The ultra-sophisticated virus can steal every one of a computer’s stored files. It will record data from a whole network, take screenshots of user activity, and is even able to activate a computer microphone to record Skype chats and conversations nearby. Reports suggest it can wipe whole heaps of data from computer systems, and change the settings of infected machines.

As it watches and listens, Flame is invisible. If discovered, it activates a ‘kill switch’ that wipes, in an instant, all traces of its existence from the infected system.

As yet, no-one is certain what information this malware has obtained. But the experts that discovered the virus believe it has been ‘in the wild’ for as long as five years. In that time, it may have gathered data from tens of thousands of computers, mostly in the Middle East: Syria, Lebanon, Sudan – and Iran.

The Islamic republic of Iran – a self-proclaimed enemy of America – has recently been the victim of another virus: Stuxnet. This highly-advanced worm targeted computer-controlled industrial systems, causing them to break down.

In 2009, it infected the computers in control of Iran’s nuclear program – and caused havoc. ‘Technical problems’ halted uranium enrichment several times, and significantly delayed Iran’s progress towards building a nuclear weapon. America and Israel are widely believed to have been behind the attack.

At the time, Stuxnet was was the most advanced cyber weapon the world had ever seen. Flame is twenty times more powerful. And experts believe the sinister viruses were created by the same state: a nation, it seems, that thinks the next frontier of international warfare is virtual.

Virtual battlefield?

If the battlefield of the future is online, some say, it can only be a good thing. Unlike bombs and guns, the weapons of coding and surveillance do not result in shattered limbs and bloody corpses. Cyber warfare will mean less violence and death.

But cyber warfare works in more sinister ways. With a simple virus, enemies can gain control of hospitals, power stations and stock exchanges: everything a modern, connected society depends on. Bombs may destroy buildings and bodies, but a few lines of code could destroy the fabric of a nation.

You Decide

  1. Do cyber weapons make a full scale war more likely or less likely?
  2. Which is more frightening – a hostile country with a nuclear weapon, or a hostile country with a powerful cyber weapon?

Activities

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of launching a cyber warfare attack from a military point of view? In groups, create a short list of pros and cons.
  2. List all the systems in society that depend on computers. Imagine what would happen if cyber warfare broke these systems down – and write a short story about what such a world would look like.

Some People Say...

“Cyber weapons are more dangerous than guns or bombs.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how far has the virus got?
The Iranian oil industry may have already been affected by Flame. Over the weekend, a virus struck the oil ministry’s website – and it had to be disconnected from the internet.
But why does that actually have an impact?
The ministry’s website provides fuel cards, which millions of Iranians use to buy petrol. If it’s taken down, fuel shortages could cause huge problems.
Couldn’t the virus be put to use in more dramatic ways?
The damage that cyber weapons could potentially create is immense. By infiltrating computer networks, enemies could be able to cut off power to whole cities, open the doors of every prison cell, or cause a chemical plant to release clouds of poison gas. These are worst-case scenarios: but they are possible.

Word Watch

Experts
Flame was discovered by security experts from Kaspersky Labs – a Russian company specialising in exposing and ‘neutralising’ IT threats. They discovered the virus while researching a problem discovered by the International Telecommunication Union. A leading scientist from the company described the new code as the ‘next phase’ in cyber warfare.
Worm
Harmful computer programs come in several different forms. Trojan programs appear to be useful software, but attack a computer once they are installed. Viruses attach themselves to files and spread when these files are shared – through an attachment on an email, for example. Worms, on the other hand, can pass from computer to computer without any human input: a worm might send a copy of itself to every name in a user’s address book.
Uranium enrichment
The element uranium usually exists in one of two different forms, called isotopes: uranium 238 and uranium 235. Enriched uranium contains a higher proportion of uranium 235. Different uses of uranium require different levels of enrichment: nuclear power uses uranium with 2-3% enrichment; to make a bomb, uranium must be 85-90% enriched. Israel and America fear that Iran may be heading toward this goal in order to create a nuclear weapon.

Subjects

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