The United States has thrust itself and the world into the era of cyber warfare, Kim Zetter, an award-winning cybersecurity journalist for WIRED magazine, told a Stanford audience. Zetter discussed her book “Countdown to Zero Day,” which details the discovery and unraveling of Stuxnet, the world’s first cyber weapon.
Stuxnet was the name given to a highly complex digital malware that targeted, and physically damaged, Iran’s clandestine nuclear program from 2007 until its cover was blown in 2010 by computer security researchers. The malware targeted the computer systems controlling physical infrastructure such as centrifuges and gas valves.
Reports following its discovery attributed the creation and deployment of Stuxnet to the United States and Israel. The New York Times quoted anonymous U.S. officials claiming responsibility for Stuxnet.
Zetter began reporting on the cyber weapon in 2010.
“When the first news came out, I didn’t think much of it,” Zetter told a CISAC seminar on Monday. The title of her book refers to a “zero-day attack," which exploits a previously unknown vulnerability in a computer application or operating system.
“Watching the Symantec researchers unravel Stuxnet, I knew what fascinated me was the process and brilliance of the researchers. The detective story is what pulled me in.”
Zetter’s book follows computer security researchers from around the world as they discover and disassemble Stuxnet over the course of months, much longer than any time spent on typical malware. The realization that Stuxnet was the world’s first cyber weapon sent shock waves throughout the tech community, yet did not create as much of a stir in mainstream society.
“It’s funny because a lot of people still don’t know Stuxnet or haven’t even heard of it,” Zetter said. “The recent vandalization of Sony seems to have finally gotten people’s attention. It was not a case of true cyber warefare, but I'm glad that my book came out right before it happened because its perception as a nation-state attack has led to interest in all nation-state attacks, including Stuxnet. The Snowden leaks also put cyber warfare on the map.”
“Countdown to Zero” also places Stuxnet in political context. The first version of Stuxnet was built and unleashed by the Bush administration in 2007, according to Zetter. Iran accelerated its enrichment process in 2008, leading to fears it would have enough uranium to build a bomb by 2010. President Barack Obama inherited the program; he not only continued it,but accelerated it. Another, more aggressive version of Stuxnet was unleashed in June 2009 and again in 2010. Obama gave the order to unleash Stuxnet while publicly demanding Iran to open itself up to negotiations.
The effectiveness of the world’s first cyber weapon remains a subject of debate. The most optimistic assessment of Stuxnet is that it delayed and slowed Iran’s uranium development enough to dissuade Israel from unilaterally striking the country, and it afforded time for intelligence and diplomatic efforts. Stuxnet contributed to dissension and frustration among the upper ranks of Iran’s government (the head of Iran’s nuclear program was replaced) and bought time for harsh economic sanctions to impact the Iranian public.
“Stuxnet actually had very little effect on Iran’s nuclear program,” said Zetter. “It was premature, it could have had a much bigger effect had the attackers waited.” Iran still made a net gain in their uranium stockpile while being attacked and they are updating their centrifuges, which would make Stuxnet obsolete.
The more unsettling parts of Zetter’s book catalog security vulnerabilities in America’s public infrastructure, which could easily be victim to a Stuxnet-style attack, and consider the implications of the era Stuxnet heralded. For example, in 2001 hackers attacked California ISO, a nonprofit corporation that manages the transmission system for moving electricity throughout most of California. More recently, Zetter writes, in 2011 a security research team “penetrated the remote-access system for a Southern California water plant and was able to take control of equipment the facility used for adding chemicals to drinking water.”
The Obama administration has publicly announced that shoring up infrastructure security is a top priority. Zetter finds this ironic, because unleashing Stuxnet has opened the U.S. up to attacks using the same malware.
“When you launch a cyber weapon, you don’t just send the weapon to your enemies, you send the intellectual property that created it and the ability to launch the weapon back against you,” writes Zetter. “Marcus Ranum, one of the early innovators of the computer firewall, called Stuxnet ‘a stone thrown by people who live in a glass house.’”
More broadly, Stuxnet heralded an era of cyber warfare that could prove to be more destructive than the nuclear era. For Zetter there is also irony to the use of cyber weapons to combat nuclear weapons. She quotes Kennette Benedict, the executive director of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” pointing out, “that the first acknowledged military use of cyber warfare is ostensibly to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A new age of mass destruction will begin in an effort to close a chapter from the first age of mass destruction.”
Zetter has similar fears.
“The U.S. lost the moral high ground from where it could tell other countries to not use digital weapons to resolve disputes,” Zetter said. “No one has been killed by a cyber attack, but I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Joshua Alvarez was a 2012 CISAC Honors Student.