In the past several weeks a computer virus known as the Stuxnet worm has invaded computer systems around the world, creating havoc and shutting down important industrial facilities in many locations.
According to a geotagging system developed by the U.S. based Symantec, 58.8 per cent of infections were in Iran, 18.2 per cent in Indonesia, 8.3 per cent in India, 2.6 per cent in Azerbaijan and 1.6 per cent in the US..
Computer viruses, worms and trojans have until now mainly infected PCs or the servers that keep e-businesses running. They may delete key system files or documents, or perhaps prevent website access, but they do not threaten life and limb.
The Stuxnet worm is different. It is the first piece of malware so far able to break into the types of computer that control machinery at the heart of industry, allowing an attacker to assume control of critical systems like pumps, motors, alarms and valves in an industrial plant.
Where does such a virus originate? Computer security experts seem to agree that the virus could only have been developed in a country with a extremely sophisticated high tech infrastructure and almost certainly with government assistance.
That certainly would implicate high tech giants such as Israel or the United States.
If Israel or the U.S. has indeed been involved in these attacks, then it is really the first salvo in the War of Iran. The attempt to destroy the infrastructure of a country, may in act represent a new front in the history of armed conflict.
But if you think that it can’t work the other way, then you might want to consider this: In June, 2010, the United States recognized that in fact it is as much at risk from a cyber-attack that could incapacitate its own electrical infrastructure in a report from the Department of Defense identified a scenario in which the entire defense infrastructure of the country could be shut down. In response, a bill has been drafted which would give the President of the United States absolute power to shut down the Internet in the event of a massive cyber-attack which threatened the nation.
Libertarians are naturally up in arms about this and have declared it such an extension of executive power that it would lead to a level of authoritarianism that could change the nature of the presidency itself.
This reaction might be somewhat chastened by the advent of the Stuxnet worm. Because if countries can develop viruses to incapacitate the defense infrastructure of any given country, the threat may indeed look something comparable to a nuclear attack, a contingency over which the President does and certainly should have full authority, as commander-in -chief, to thwart.
Whatever the answer to this important question, the success of the Stuxnet worm raises potentially devastating consequences for high tech nations. We might indeed be able to defeat Iran without firing a shot, but without the proper cyber-shields, the duel might end in our own incapacitation – leading to the very self destruction we are seeking to avoid.