One little computer worm can open a big can of worms


Iran’s latest attempts to bring its nuclear power plants online reads something like a Tom Clancy novel.

Parts are coming in from a defiant Russia. A key scientist – a specialist in nuclear isotope separation – was killed today by bomb-wielding motorcyclists. And more than 30,000 computers in the system were crippled late last week by a computer worm called Stuxnet, which experts say was calibrated to destroy uranium-enrichment centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

Iran blames everything on the West and Israel. No one has taken responsibility for any of the attacks. But everyone should play close attention, because this scenario is going to become very common in our technology-driven society and military — and raises some critical questions that remain to be answered.

This new article by the Foreign Policy Research Institute rightly identifies the cyber realm as the fifth domain of warfare, joining land, sea, air and space. It gives a quick review of the history of cyber warfare, and the threats we face as attacks in this domain unfold. And it asks the right questions: What about retaliation? Is a country justified by retaliating with a similar cyber attack, a traditional military attack or an asymmetrical terror attack? How do treaties such as that of NATO play into the mix?

The questions are legitimate. Even now, Gen. Keith Alexander, who head the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, wants the green light to launch preemptive computer network attacks to protect U.S. interests. Many lawmakers support the idea – many do not. And legal analysts are running in circles with their hair on fire trying to find the right answer.

Meanwhile, the word out of Iran is that it has confined the worm, and the country’s first nuclear power plant has been loaded fuel and will go on line by late January.


About Author

A Navy brat who spent eight years in the Marines (two years aboard the carrier Independence). Worked in journalism in Eastern North Carolina through the latter part of the 90s, then became editor of Air Force Times in 2000. Stayed there five years, then took a break to finish some school. Now back in the game with Navy Times.

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