Stuxnet and the Weaponisation of Malware   no comments

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In June 2010 the US and Israel are alleged to have attacked Iranian nuclear facilities. This assault was not carried out by an aerial bombing raid or any conventional military action. Instead, a number of devices at several sites which had been infected with a worm called ‘Stuxnet’ began faking industrial process control signals. This led to centrifuges used in the uranium enrichment process spinning several times faster than their mechanical tolerances would allow. Many centrifuges were destroyed and the enrichment process was severely disrupted.


This malware is the first example of nation states relying exclusively on malicious software to further a major foreign policy aim. It marks the introduction of a new form of warfare between countries, one which is perhaps more dangerous than any other kind, as unlike conventional conflicts, potent weapons become available to non-combatants and can be analysed, adapted and redeployed. Stuxnet spread beyond the Iranian industrial centres it was designed to attack (it is believed that a technician took an infected device, a laptop or possibly a memory stick, home and connected Stuxnet to the Internet). From there it infected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world and was even traded on the black market. In fact two of the most sophisticated pieces of malware of the last 2 years (Duqu and Flame) are considered to be expansions of Stuxnet.


However, this new kind of warfare is also depressingly similar to older forms – it led to retaliatory cyber-attacks on American and Israeli institutions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, there was an exchange of propaganda as America and Israel denied all knowledge of Stuxnet while the Iranians sought to underplay its effectiveness and there was an increase in the determination and belligerence of all participants – analysis has shown that Iranian uranium enrichment actually increased in 2010, and the assassination of Iranian scientists involved in the programme began in earnest.




1. Historical


I want to try and place Stuxnet in some kind of historical context. Was it really the first time a nation had attacked another nation with malware for foreign policy purposes? What are the parallels with previous arms races? Can previous conflicts (cyber and conventional) give us guidance on how this new kind of warfare is likely to develop?


2. Ethical/philosophical


Is electronic warfare ‘preferable’ to conventional warfare? No lives were lost (that we know of) through the use of Stuxnet, whereas a conventional US/Israeli attack on Iran would certainly have escalated and led to significant loss of life. Is this a new ‘clean’ kind of warfare? Will it reflect the post-war arms race and the concept of a nuclear deterrent? Will there one day be malware so dangerous it will force an uneasy peace?

Written by Andrew Reddin on October 15th, 2013

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