The N.Y. Times published a report about the Stuxnet virus which takes an interesting and slightly contrarian view of the power and lethality of the virus. But the most interesting part of the article was a list of other previous cyberattacks that were initiated by governments. Among them, John Markoff notes that Israel’s attack on the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor involved disabling that nation’s radar/anti-aircraft defenses. According to the reporter, the IDF’s Unit 8200 devised an ingenious method of shutting the radar off:
Accounts of the event initially indicated that sophisticated jamming technology had been used to blind the radar so Israeli aircraft went unnoticed. Last December, however, a report in an American technical publication, IEEE Spectrum, cited a European industry source as raising the possibility that the Israelis had used a built-in kill switch to shut down the radar.
A former member of the United States intelligence community said that the attack had been the work of Israel’s equivalent of America’s National Security Agency, known as Unit 8200.
If I understood Markoff, what would’ve happened is that Israel would’ve infected the computer system operating the Syrian radar with a worm and that worm would’ve turned off the system. We can surely expect the same tactics if/when Israel attacks Iran. One wonders how or whether the Iranians have prepared themselves to face this.
Inside Israel, Unit 8200 is famous for its know-how and derring-do. But almost nothing is known or spoken about its operations. This is a very closely held military secret. Which is why Markoff’s report is so interesting.
Moving to a different issue raised by Markoff, he notes an aspect of the Stuxnet infection which others have not addressed: that the worm was designed rather haphazardly in terms of its target. You might expect an intelligence agency attempting to sabotage a nation’s industrial system to be more particular about directing the infection only to affect computers within that country. The high level of infection outside Iran indicates the perpetrators of Stuxnet didn’t much care where it went as long as it got to Iran. To me, this indicates a rather high level of moral negligence at the toll it would take outside that country. Further, it indicates a sense of hubris that whatever effect it might have on the world such damage could not be inflicted on the computer system of the country which devised it.
Though I’m not a cyber security expert it would seem that Iran’s nuclear program had rather haphazard security standards if an infected USB stick could be the cause of the original infection there. Though many of us have been warning about the fight Israel would have on its hands if it attacked Iran, it makes one wonder whether the high tech aspects of Iran’s defenses might be less than imagined, especially if they share any of the vulnerabilities of the Syrian system. This certainly should be giving Iran’s generals pause as they prepare for precisely such an onslaught.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.