Kevin Coleman

Those behind Stuxnet attack may not be who we think they are

Investigative tools no match for sophisticated attacks

Yes, this is yet another article about Stuxnet. But it is unlike many of the others that have been written. Just run a Google search on Stuxnet, and you will see what I mean. In preparing for this article, I got 3.8 million Google results when I searched for "Stuxnet." I bet there have been a few added since then.

In looking at the search results, a large percentage of the articles deal with the technical aspects of the Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear program. A similar percentage deals with the political aspects and reasons behind the Stuxnet cyberattack, in addition to the time margin created by the attack. However, there is another area that has become quite popular and is arguably the fastest-growing area of the Stuxnet subject matter. This has been a favorite topic of spy thrillers and espionage stories throughout history: who done it?

A number of articles have been posted that discuss attribution for this cyberattack. Attribution is tricky — I’ve been there and made that mistake. The articles actually named China, Israel, United Kingdom and the United States as being behind what has come to be known as the most sophisticated cyber weapon and attack seen to date, at least in the public domain.

Although it's true that all of these countries have the capacity and know-how needed to create Stuxnet, they also have the technical knowledge needed to cloak their activities and mask the identities often found in the code artifacts of cyber weapons. It is amazing to see the number of small and midsize organizations with limited resources that release articles and reports that name who is behind Stuxnet. The egos and attitudes that combine to make the authors believe they have the intelligence assets, resources, knowledge and capabilities to compete with the thought leaders in the weaponry and strategies of digital conflict that created Stuxnet are gigantic.

Do they really think they have what's necessary to unravel the mysteries behind the Stuxnet code if it were developed by China’s State Security Ministry, Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6 or our CIA? These same reporters and organizations, when pushed for evidence, offer little or no substance behind their attribution, and when cornered, most fall back to the position, “They [meaning who the security firm believes was behind the attack] had motive.”

In July 2010, the House Science and Technology Committee's Technology and Innovation Subcommittee held a hearing and discussed cyberattack attribution technology and its importance. The subcommittee discussed current and future research and development needs. There was little disagreement that the tools and techniques needed for attribution are in the very early stage of development and are gradually evolving. The big problem is these tools are evolving slower than the advanced threats we are seeing introduced into the cyber domain on a regular basis. Having stellar cyber attribution capabilities will serve as a big deterrent to acts of cyber aggression. Today, there is little concern about attribution for those nations in the top tier of offensive cyber capabilities.

The Stuxnet cyberattack has all the makings of a 21st-century spy thriller, but the harsh reality is that this is just a glimpse of what's to come. Stuxnet should serve as an early warning to all industrialized nations about the risk that cyberattacks pose to our infrastructure and way of life. By most accounts, it was successful and achieved its mission — delaying Iran’s nuclear enrichment efforts. It is highly unlikely that we will find out anytime soon who was behind Stuxnet. There is a short list of those who have the intelligence assets needed to carry this out and infect the Iranian nuclear equipment in addition to the technical assets to design and develop the code, plus all the goodies they included that mislead and misdirect all those investigating and think they know who was behind it. After all this, I can’t wait for the movie.

About the Author

Kevin Coleman is a senior fellow with the Technolytics Institute, former chief strategist at Netscape, and an adviser on cyber warfare and security. He is also the author of "Cyber Commander's Handbook." He can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]

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