Is stuxnet the new Ultra?

Mladen Andrijasevic

Few people realize the importance of Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski. These three Polish mathematicians and cryptologists solved the Enigma machine in 1932, the main cipher used by the Germans, and in 1939 transferred their knowledge to the British who under the leadership of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park continued to penetrate most of the German communication during WWII.

The history of WWII would have been quite different if it had not been for Ultra as the intelligence obtained through  breaking Enigma was called.  The anti submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic was won almost entirely thanks to Ultra.  Many of the major battles of the Second World War, The Battle of Britain, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Kursk, D-Day were won at least partly because Ultra had broken the German code.

But all this was unknown until 30 years after the end of the Second Word War.   

So what is one to make of the articles like this one in Computerworld Is Stuxnet the 'best' malware ever?

The Stuxnet worm is a "groundbreaking" piece of malware so devious in its use of unpatched vulnerabilities, so sophisticated in its multipronged approach, that the security researchers who tore it apart believe it may be the work of state-backed professionals.

"It's amazing, really, the resources that went into this worm," said Liam O Murchu, manager of operations with Symantec's security response team.

"I'd call it groundbreaking," said Roel Schouwenberg, a senior antivirus researcher at Kaspersky Lab. In comparison, other notable attacks, like the one dubbed Aurora that hacked Google's network and those of dozens of other major companies, were child's play.

The malware, which weighed in a nearly half a megabyte -- an astounding size, said Schouwenberg -- was written in multiple languages, including C, C++ and other object-oriented languages, O Murchu added.

Or this one in The Economist A cyber-missile aimed at Iran?

But the possibility that it might have been aimed at one set of industrial-control systems in particular—those inside Iranian nuclear facilities—has prompted one security expert to describe Stuxnet as a "cyber-missile", designed to seek out and destroy a particular target. Its unusual sophistication, meanwhile, has prompted speculation that it is the work of a well-financed team working for a nation state, rather than a group of rogue hackers trying to steal industrial secrets or cause trouble. This, in turn, has led to suggestions that Israel, known for its high-tech prowess and (ahem) deep suspicion of Iran's nuclear programme, might be behind it. But it is difficult to say how much truth there is in this juicy theory.

Are we witnessing the first visible stages of the war against the Iranian nuclear sites?  Although the worm can apparently be patched I can imagine the level of concern that is spreading among the Iranians is significant.  Will it take 30 years to find out what has happened? 

Is Israel involved?  Should we be surprised if it were?  Not really. One just needs to read the book Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer to get the magnitude of Israel’s achievement in computer technology in the last 30 years.   The 8088 chip used in the original IBM PC was designed in Haifa, the 386 in Jerusalem. Centrino and Core 2 Duo, and most of the  Intel’s forty new processors over a one-hundred-day period were based on Intel’s Israeli team’s design.   

Is stuxnet just the tip of the iceberg?  Will computer know-how play the same role Ultra played in the Second World War?  Let’s hope so. Is the ingenuity, innovation and chutzpah that made the Israeli computer revolution possible now being utilized to counter the Iranian threat?  Apparently.

There is a difference. The scientific and technological achievement of both sides during Word War II was comparable.  Britain had the radar and Alan Turing, the Americans the Manhattan project. The Germans had Karl Zuse, who invented the first electro-mechanical computer and Wernher von Braun.  Today the difference is between a country (or countries) that virtually invented the technology and one that is still leaning how to use it. Let’s hope that this difference will prove crucial.

Few people realize the importance of Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski. These three Polish mathematicians and cryptologists solved the Enigma machine in 1932, the main cipher used by the Germans, and in 1939 transferred their knowledge to the British who under the leadership of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park continued to penetrate most of the German communication during WWII.

The history of WWII would have been quite different if it had not been for Ultra as the intelligence obtained through  breaking Enigma was called.  The anti submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic was won almost entirely thanks to Ultra.  Many of the major battles of the Second World War, The Battle of Britain, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Kursk, D-Day were won at least partly because Ultra had broken the German code.

But all this was unknown until 30 years after the end of the Second Word War.   

So what is one to make of the articles like this one in Computerworld Is Stuxnet the 'best' malware ever?

The Stuxnet worm is a "groundbreaking" piece of malware so devious in its use of unpatched vulnerabilities, so sophisticated in its multipronged approach, that the security researchers who tore it apart believe it may be the work of state-backed professionals.

"It's amazing, really, the resources that went into this worm," said Liam O Murchu, manager of operations with Symantec's security response team.

"I'd call it groundbreaking," said Roel Schouwenberg, a senior antivirus researcher at Kaspersky Lab. In comparison, other notable attacks, like the one dubbed Aurora that hacked Google's network and those of dozens of other major companies, were child's play.

The malware, which weighed in a nearly half a megabyte -- an astounding size, said Schouwenberg -- was written in multiple languages, including C, C++ and other object-oriented languages, O Murchu added.

Or this one in The Economist A cyber-missile aimed at Iran?

But the possibility that it might have been aimed at one set of industrial-control systems in particular—those inside Iranian nuclear facilities—has prompted one security expert to describe Stuxnet as a "cyber-missile", designed to seek out and destroy a particular target. Its unusual sophistication, meanwhile, has prompted speculation that it is the work of a well-financed team working for a nation state, rather than a group of rogue hackers trying to steal industrial secrets or cause trouble. This, in turn, has led to suggestions that Israel, known for its high-tech prowess and (ahem) deep suspicion of Iran's nuclear programme, might be behind it. But it is difficult to say how much truth there is in this juicy theory.

Are we witnessing the first visible stages of the war against the Iranian nuclear sites?  Although the worm can apparently be patched I can imagine the level of concern that is spreading among the Iranians is significant.  Will it take 30 years to find out what has happened? 

Is Israel involved?  Should we be surprised if it were?  Not really. One just needs to read the book Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer to get the magnitude of Israel’s achievement in computer technology in the last 30 years.   The 8088 chip used in the original IBM PC was designed in Haifa, the 386 in Jerusalem. Centrino and Core 2 Duo, and most of the  Intel’s forty new processors over a one-hundred-day period were based on Intel’s Israeli team’s design.   

Is stuxnet just the tip of the iceberg?  Will computer know-how play the same role Ultra played in the Second World War?  Let’s hope so. Is the ingenuity, innovation and chutzpah that made the Israeli computer revolution possible now being utilized to counter the Iranian threat?  Apparently.

There is a difference. The scientific and technological achievement of both sides during Word War II was comparable.  Britain had the radar and Alan Turing, the Americans the Manhattan project. The Germans had Karl Zuse, who invented the first electro-mechanical computer and Wernher von Braun.  Today the difference is between a country (or countries) that virtually invented the technology and one that is still leaning how to use it. Let’s hope that this difference will prove crucial.