Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Manhattan Project Spawned Stuxnet


During the summer of 1939 the brilliant Albert Einstein was asked to partake in plans to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American military to start the “Manhattan Project”. During the same year it was widely speculated that German scientists were also experimenting with similar ideas in nuclear fission and the race was on. With the Germens already experimenting and pushing their reign across Europe it was imperative that America be the first country to have nuclear weapons. 

During the next 5 years the construction of top secret bases and equipment were constructed to have research completed and to create science no one’s done before; not only theoretically designing the reactors to produce plutonium, but being able to both create and produce nuclear fission. Here we see both academic and operational efforts working in tandem to produce a weapon that will change the face of modern warfare. 

Dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski are  still widely debated. While dropping their newly created weapons did help put an end to the war, its still widely believed that another driving factor to dropping the weapon was to show Russia that America has nuclear arms and isn’t afraid to use them.  Deploying these weapons on the population of Japan is also still widely disputed. Wondering why America didn’t drop the warheads on a military base, instead of a civilian neighborhood, is still a point of contention. 

Right or wrong after these warheads were dropped and the world was ushered into the nuclear age whether we were ready for it or not. The pandora ’s box was now blown wide open. Not only are we concerned about nuclear attacks in modern times, but we’re trying to stop others from having access to technology we built. Fast forwarded 70 years and we find the pandora’s box is still wide open and getting larger. Down the rabbit hole we go. 

The year is now 2010 and due hostility between Iran and the west a highly complicated piece of malware is created to target only the Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and it’s given the name Stuxnet. The particular SCADA systems Stuxnet was coded to attack are isolated only to the Natanz Iranian nuclear plant, but due to a programming error the worm spread to an engineer’s laptop working on the Iranian centrifuges and escaped into the wild. History was made once again.

Due to the complexity of the code, the cost of the equipment needed to test on (SCADA), the sheer amount of zero day exploits it targeted with intimate knowledge of the exact PLCs, the only culprit to such a sophisticated software was a nation state. When looking at most worms on the internet they normally have a few factors behind their creation: theft of financials, stealing intellectual data or espionage. The Stuxnet malware didn’t have any of these characteristics and was there for one reason: stopping the Iranians from going nuclear. 

During the years prior to the worm being deployed fear of a nuclear Iran and failure of diplomatic pressure and sanction lead America and Israel to embark on something that was never done before.  President George Bush at the time started project “Operation Olympic Games” which was then taken over by President Barack Obama who continued the operation to develop a cyber-weapon aimed at Iran. Since it’s still early on in the history of Stuxnet it’s still heavily speculated that the Americans and Israel’s worked together to develop this technology to stop a common enemy, much like America did with the Manhattan project. 

The acquisition of zero day vulnerabilities and SCADA systems were researched and built to test the code being deployed to the Natanz plant. This is no small feat and most likely took the nation states involved years to research, code and develop. Once again the world was ushered into the next world of modern warfare. The cyber age was now upon us. 

There are many similarities between the Manhattan Project and Operation Olympic Games, both of which are projects where America is working with other countries to develop technology never before used in modern warfare. In the Manhattan Project American refugees from fascist regimes in Europe assisted with American scientists to develop a weapon before their common enemy could achieve it the same goal. With the example of Operation Olympic Games America once again teamed up with another country, mainly Israel, to develop another weapon in attempt to stop their common enemy Iran before they could produce what they assume would be a weapon of mass destruction. 

It’s interesting to look at the reason  Stuxnet was produced in the first place. The chief reason behind America creating Stuxnet was to destroy or slow the progress of Iran from having nuclear capabilities in fear they’d used this new found capability for evil. This is the exact opposite of the Manhattan project and shows the dangers of leveraging new technology without thinking about the long term ramifications of their use. The Stuxnet malware was made chiefly to plug a hole created 70 years earlier by the Manhattan project. Now decades later we’re still dealing with the rabbit hole created with the birth atomic weapons and we’re creating cyber weapons in attempts to put a stop to what we created in the first place. The proof of concept is out in the wild now and any nation state can start creating cyber weapons of this caliber without much difficulty. 

One can only imagine what will come from the release of Stuxnet and other cyber weapons and what we’ll have to do in the next 70 to try and cap the damage that was created. 

How far down the rabbit hole do we go?

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