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Stuxnet: From bombers to binary code

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19 January 2011 13:58

The NY Times published a piece last weekend making a strong case that the Stuxnet computer virus, which has apparently set back Iran's nuclear program by several years, was developed and then planted by the US and Israel. In other words, an act of cyberwarfare.

Here's Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman on what Stuxnet has achieved:

With Stuxnet, there’s no broader conventional assault, but an adversary’s most important military asset gets compromised. The mission of an aerial bombardment of Iran would be to set Iran’s nuclear program back; to at least some degree, Stuxnet has done precisely that. Only Stuxnet didn’t kill anyone, and it didn’t set off the destabilizing effect in the region that a bombing campaign was likely to reap.

So far, at least, Ackerman seems to be right about Iran's reaction to the attack. But can we really put Tehran's inaction down to the fact that Iran was attacked by a computer virus rather than a fleet of bombers' What is it about Stuxnet that makes it difficult for Iran to respond'

You might say it comes down to deniability — Iran can't be sure who planted the virus, so who would they attack' Maybe, but Ackerman himself notes that the NY Times has built a strong circumstantial case that the US and Israel were involved. And countries don't always wait for definitive proof before taking military action (see: Iraq, US invasion of).

Or maybe Iran's inaction is explained by its own poor cyberwarfare capabilities; they just don't have the means to respond in kind. But there's no rule saying Iran can't use its military or its terrorist networks to respond to a cyber-attack. In fact, the US and Israel regularly move battles from one 'theatre' to another, using conventional military force to respond to unconventional (terrorist) attacks.

Maybe there's nothing inherent in cyberwarfare that constrained Iran in this instance, and Tehran's inaction is better explained by other factors: fear of escalation, fear of regional isolation, economic repercussions. Those factors would have constrained Iran whether the US had used bombers or binary code.

Photo by Flickr user Ivan Plata.

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