Austin Bay

Can a worm bust a hydroelectric dam, on command?

The cyber-warrior scenario goes something like this: If the worm is a computer worm (or other digital malware) infecting a dam's computer system, it might be possible to use the malicious code to take control of the supervisory operating system. The attacker then orders the computer to open the dam's gates and thus create a destructive flood inundating cities downstream. The computer worm would breach the dam with deniable finesse, rather than the concrete and traceable mess left by a high explosive bomb or a nuclear weapon.

Enter the Stuxnet computer virus, first detected this past summer. If Stuxnet is not "weaponized malware" designed to strike a specific target and achieve specific military results, it is certainly an improved cyber-attack tool and a step closer to the dam-busting malware scenario.

Computer experts understand and respect its threat., on Oct. 3, described Stuxnet as "the first piece of malware to damage the computer systems which control industrial plants," and its emergence should serve as "a wake-up call to the world." StrategyPage compared Stuxnet's strategic military implications to the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1950s -- weapons that could strike global targets.

The comparison is dramatic but also apt. Stuxnet-type weapons can worm their way around the globe, wreaking havoc. Modern life relies on microchips. Computers and digital devices run power grids and communications systems. This blunt fact remains, however: If a device utilizes digital code, it is vulnerable to abuse or outright attack by hackers, criminals and cyber-warfighters. Just how vulnerable is a subject of ferocious debate -- a societally vital debate that Stuxnet's appearance has intensified.

Power grids can include nuclear reactors. Stuxnet specifically targets a "supervisory control and data acquisition" (SCADA) system manufactured by Germany's Siemens Corp. It just so happens Iran uses this controller in several major industrial and research facilities, including its nuclear reactor at Bushehr and uranium enrichment center at Natanz.

Now for the politics and Stuxnet's likely raison d'etre: Iran's militant Islamist regime claims Bushehr is a peaceful project intended to produce electricity. However, its ruling nut cases like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely threaten to destroy Israel. They refer to Israel as a "one-bomb state" -- meaning one large Iranian nuclear weapon would eliminate the entire nation.

The Israelis take these threats to their survival seriously. Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and likely denied Iraq's Saddam Hussein a nuclear weapon.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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