Tag Archives: cyberattack

A Worldwide Web that Kills with Success

Doubts are growing about the satellites, warships and other big pieces of hardware involved in the command and control of America’s military might. For the past couple of decades the country’s generals and admirals have focused their attention on defeating various forms of irregular warfare. For this, these castles in the sky and at sea have worked well. In the meantime, however, America’s rivals have been upgrading their regular forces—including weapons that can destroy such nodes of power. Both China and Russia have successfully blown up orbiting satellites. And both have developed, or are developing, sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

As a result, America is trying to devise a different approach to C2, as command and control is known in military jargon. The Department of Defense has dubbed this idea “Joint All-Domain Command and Control”, or JADC2. It aims to eliminate vulnerable nodes in the system (e.g., satellites) by multiplying the number of peer-to-peer data links that connect pieces of military hardware directly to one another, rather than via a control center that might be eliminated by a single, well-aimed missile.

The goal, officials say, is to create a network that links “every sensor and every shooter”. When complete, this will encompass sensors as small as soldiers’ night-vision gear and sonar buoys drifting at sea, and shooters as potent as ground-based artillery and aerial drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

One likely beneficiary of the jadc2 approach is Anduril Industries, a Californian firm…Its products include small spy helicopter drones; radar, infrared and optical systems constructed as solar-powered towers; and paperback-sized ground sensors that can be disguised as rocks

Sensors come in still-more-diverse forms than Anduril’s, though. An autonomous doglike robot made by Ghost Robotics of Philadelphia offers a hint of things to come. In addition to infrared and video systems, this quadruped, dubbed v60 q-ugv, can be equipped with acoustic sensors (to recognise, among other things, animal and human footsteps), a millimetre-wave scanner (to see through walls) and “sniffers” that identify radiation, chemicals and electromagnetic signals. Thanks to navigation systems developed for self-driving cars, v60 q-ugv can scamper across rough terrain, climb stairs and hide from people. In a test by the air force this robot was able to spot a mobile missile launcher and pass its location on directly to an artillery team…

Applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) to more C2 processes should cut the time required to hit a target. In a demonstration in September 2020, army artillery controlled by AI and fed instructions by air-force sensors shot down a cruise missile in a response described as “blistering”…

There are, however, numerous obstacles to the success of all this. For a start, developing unhackable software for the purpose will be hard. Legions of machines containing proprietary and classified technologies, new and old, will have to be connected seamlessly, often without adding antennae or other equipment that would spoil their stealthiness…America’s technologists must, then, link the country’s military equipment into a “kill web” so robust that attempts to cripple it will amount to “trying to pop a balloon with one finger”, as Timothy Grayson, head of strategic technologies at DARPA, the defense department’s main research agency, puts it…

Excerpts from The future of armed conflict: Warfare’s worldwide web, Economist,  Jan. 9, 2021

Who is the Boss? Cyber-War

A new National Cyber Power Index by the Belfer Centre at Harvard University ranks 30 countries on their level of ambition and capability…That America stands at the top of the list is not surprising. Its cyber-security budget for fiscal year 2020 stood at over $17bn and the National Security Agency (NSA) probably gets well over $10bn. The awesome scale of America’s digital espionage was laid bare in leaks by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in 2013, which showed the agency hoovering up vast amounts of the world’s internet traffic and trying to weaken encryption standards.

China, in second place, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for commercial cyber-espionage abroad and an iron grip on the internet at home. Britain, whose National Cyber Security Centre has parried over 1,800 cyber-attacks since its creation in 2016, is third. Russia, whose spies interfered with America’s last election, is in fourth place. The big surprise is the Netherlands in fifth place, ahead of France, Germany and Canada. Dutch expertise in analyzing malware is particularly sharp…

Many countries outsource the dirtiest work to deniable proxies, like “hacktivists” and criminals….But while stealing things and disrupting networks is important, what matters most over the longer term is control of digital infrastructure, such as the hardware that runs mobile telecommunications and key apps. Dominance there will be crucial to economic strength and national security.

Excerpt from Digital dominance: A new global ranking of cyber-power throws up some surprises, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

 
New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019

Cyber-Attacking Nuclear Plants: the 3 000 cyber bugs

In the first half of 2019 , no country endured more cyber-attacks on its Internet of Things—the web of internet-connected devices and infrastructure—than India did. So asserts Subex, an Indian telecommunications firm, which produces regular reports on cyber-security. Between April and June of 2019, it said, recorded cyber-attacks jumped by 22%, with 2,550 unique samples of malware discovered. Some of that malicious code is turning up in hair-raising places.

On October 28, 2019 reports indicated that malware had been found on the computer systems of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the newest and largest such power station in India. Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity researcher who formerly worked for the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s signals-intelligence agency, says he was informed of the malware by an undisclosed third party in September, and notified the government.The attackers, he said, had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets”…. On October 30, 2019 the body that operates nuclear power plants acknowledged, sheepishly, that a computer had indeed been infected, but it was only an “administrative” one.

Sensitive sites such as power plants typically isolate the industrial-control systems (those that control the workings of a plant) from those connected to the wider internet. They do so using air-gaps (which involve disconnecting the system from the wider world), firewalls (which monitor data-flows for suspicious traffic) or data diodes (which allow information to flow out but not in).

But breaching a computer on the outside of these digital moats is nevertheless troubling. It could have given the attackers access to sensitive emails, personnel records and other details which would, in turn, make it easier to gain access to the more isolated operational part of the plant. America and Israel are thought to have sneaked the devastating Stuxnet virus into Iran’s air-gapped uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz around 2007 by planting a USB stick on a worker, who carried it inside and plugged it in.

The culprit behind the Kudankulam attack is unknown, but left some clues. The malware in question is from a family known as DTrack, which gives attackers an intimate look at what victims are doing—down to their keystrokes. It is typically used to monitor a target, making it easier to deliver further malware. DTrack was originally developed by a group of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, who are widely assumed to be controlled or directed by North Korea.

Excerpts from On the DTrack: A cyber-attack on an Indian nuclear plant raises worrying questions, Economist, Nov. 1, 2019

Who is Afraid of Shamoon? How to Wipe a Country Off the Face of the Earth

Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in July-August  2019, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions…Hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency—the country’s main criminal investigative authority—as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

On July 25, 2019 Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country, the person said. “They had command and control of some of the systems,” the person said.  The breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon.  Bahrain is the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, but it is strategically important because it’s the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Navy Central Command. It is closely allied with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.

The Bahrain authorities haven’t definitively attributed the attack to Iran, but they have been provided intelligence by the U.S. and others suggesting Iran is behind it, the people familiar with the matter said….“In the first half of 2019, the Information & eGovernment Authority successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or disruption of government services,” 

Excerpt from High-Level Cyber Intrusions Hit Bahrain Amid Tensions With Iran, WSJ, Aug. 7, 2019

The Brutal Kangaroos

On June 22nd 2017, WikiLeaks published documents from the Brutal Kangaroo project of the CIA. Brutal Kangaroo is a tool suite for Microsoft Windows that targets closed networks by air gap jumping using thumbdrives…

The documents describe how a CIA operation can infiltrate a closed network (or a single air-gapped computer) within an organization or enterprise without direct access. It first infects a Internet-connected computer within the organization (referred to as “primary host”) and installs the BrutalKangaroo malware on it. When a user is using the primary host and inserts a USB stick into it, the thumbdrive itself is infected with a separate malware. If this thumbdrive is used to copy data between the closed network and the LAN/WAN, the user will sooner or later plug the USB disk into a computer on the closed network. By browsing the USB drive with Windows Explorer on such a protected computer, it also gets infected with exfiltration/survey malware. If multiple computers on the closed network are under CIA control, they form a covert network to coordinate tasks and data exchange. Although not explicitly stated in the documents, this method of compromising closed networks is very similar to how Stuxnet worked.

Excerpts from Brutal Kangaroo Press Release Wikileaks, June 22, 2017

Biometrics: Behavioral and Physical

From DARPA pdf document available at  FedBizOpps. Gov Enhanced Attribution
Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34

Malicious actors in cyberspace currently operate with little fear of being caught due to the fact that it is extremely difficult, in some cases perhaps even impossible, to reliably and confidently attribute actions in cyberspace to individuals. The reason cyber attribution is difficult stems at least in part from a lack of end-to-end accountability in the current Internet infrastructure…..The identities of malicious cyber operators are largely obstructed by the use of multiple layers of indirection… The lack of detailed information about the actions and identities of the adversary cyber operators inhibits policymaker considerations and decisions for both cyber and non-cyber response options (e.g., economic sanctions under EO-13694).

The DARPA’s Enhanced Attribution program aims to make currently opaque malicious cyber adversary actions and individual cyber operator attribution transparent by providing high-fidelity visibility into all aspects of malicious cyber operator actions and to increase the Government’s ability to publicly reveal the actions of individual malicious cyber operators without damaging sources and methods….

The program seeks to develop:

–technologies to extract behavioral and physical biometrics from a range of devices and
vantage points to consistently identify virtual personas and individual malicious cyber
operators over time and across different endpoint devices and C2 infrastructures;
–techniques to decompose the software tools and actions of malicious cyber operators into semantically rich and compressed knowledge representations;
–scalable techniques to fuse, manage, and project such ground-truth information over time,toward developing a full historical and current picture of malicious activity;

–algorithms for developing predictive behavioral profiles within the context of cyber campaigns; and
–technologies for validating and perhaps enriching this knowledge base with other sources of data, including public and commercial sources of information.

Excerpts from Enhanced Attribution, Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34, April 22, 2016

Iran Wants to Be North Korea: nuclear weapons

The US tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme five years  (2010) ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.  The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear programme in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uraniumc. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by US and Israeli forces.

According to one US intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine…But the National Security Agency-led campaign was stymied by North Korea’s utter secrecy, as well as the extreme isolation of its communications systems...North Korea has some of the most isolated communications networks in the world. Just owning a computer requires police permission, and the open internet is unknown except to a tiny elite. The country has one main conduit for internet connections to the outside world, through China.  In contrast, Iranians surfed the net broadly and had interactions with companies from around the globe.

The US has launched many cyber espionage campaigns, but North Korea is only the second country, after Iran, that the NSA is now known to have targeted with software designed to destroy equipment.

Experts in nuclear programmes said there were similarities between North Korea and Iran’s operations, and the two countries continue to collaborate on military technology. Both countries use a system with P-2 centrifuges, obtained by Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan, who is regarded as the father of Islamabad’s nuclear bomb, they said. Like Iran, North Korea probably directs its centrifuges with control software developed by Siemens AG that runs on Microsoft Corp’s Windows operating system, the experts said. Stuxnet took advantage of vulnerabilities in both the Siemens and Microsoft programmes…

Despite modest differences between the programmes, “Stuxnet can deal with both of them. But you still need to get it in,” said Olli Heinonen, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency…

The Stuxnet campaign against Iran, code-named Olympic Games, was discovered in 2010. It remains unclear how the virus was introduced to the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz, which was not connected to the Internet.,,,According to cybersecurity experts, Stuxnet was found inside industrial companies in Iran that were tied to the nuclear effort. As for how Stuxnet got there, a leading theory is that it was deposited by a sophisticated espionage programme developed by a team closely allied to Stuxnet’s authors, dubbed the Equation Group by researchers at Kaspersky Lab…

In addition, North Korea likely has plutonium, which does not require a cumbersome enrichment process depending on the cascading centrifuges that were a fat target for Stuxnet, they said.

Excerpts from NSA tried Stuxnet cyber-attack on North Korea five years ago but failed, Reuters, May 29, 2015

Hacked to be Framed: N. Korea – Wapomi Worm

Foreign hackers could have broken into North Korean computers and used them to make the country look responsible for hacking Sony, experts have said.  Any attempt to blame North Korea for the attack because hackers used a North Korean IP address “must be treated as suspect”, security firm Cloudmark said. That is one of the reasons that the FBI has given for suspecting the country for the attack, which took down Sony Pictures’ systems for weeks.  Security experts have continued to be dubious of the claim, but FBI officials have continued to blame North Korea.

The country has a very small connection to the internet, run by its national telecom ministry and a Thai firm. As a demonstration of how few connections North Korea has to the internet, Cloudmark said that it has the same amount of IP addresses allocated to it as the entire country.  Cloudmark said that the North Korean addresses it traces tend to send out spam, which is usually the sign of an infected machine. It identified the Wapomi worm, which is transmitted by USB drives and file server shares, as the code that is allowing outside people to control the machine.

While there is no guarantee that the same worm is present on the computers that have carried out the attack, the prevalence of infected computers in the country shows how easy it could have been for Sony’s hackers to give the impression they were based on North Korea.  Cloud mark said that “unless the FBI releases more specific details of their case against North Korea, including email headers and mail server logs, some experts will continue to question if they are in fact correct”.

ANDREW GRIFFIN ,North Korea might have been hacked to frame it for Sony cyberattack, say experts, Independent, January 12, 2015

Cyber-Warriors: US and China

On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.

That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.

Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.

American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.

Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…

Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.

Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals,  Economist, May 24, at 28

Cyberwar: USA Official Doctrine

 

In his first major speech [March 28, 2014] on cyber policy, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sough to project strength but also to tame perceptions of the United States as an aggressor in computer warfare, stressing that the government “does not seek to militarize cyberspace.”…

Hagel said that the fighting force at U.S. Cyber Command will number more than 6,000 people by 2016, making it one of the largest such ­forces in the world. The force will help expand the president’s options for responding to a crisis with “full-spectrum cyber capabilities,” Hagel said, a reference to cyber operations that can include destroying, damaging or sabotaging an adversary’s computer systems and that can complement other military operations.

But, Hagel said, the military’s first purpose is “to prevent and de-escalate conflict.” The Pentagon will maintain “an approach of restraint to any cyber operations outside of U.S. government networks.”  Although some U.S. adversaries, notably China and Russia, which also have formidable cyber capabilities, may view his remarks with skepticism, Hagel said the Pentagon is making an effort to be “open and transparent” about its cyber­forces and doctrine. The hope, senior officials said, is that transparency will lead to greater stability in cyberspace.  To underscore the point, Hagel’s speech was broadcast live from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, the first such broadcast from the agency…

Tensions over U.S. cyber operations intensified again last weekend after a report that the NSA had penetrated the networks of a Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei Technologies, in search of evidence that it was involved in espionage operations for Beijing and to use its equipment to spy on adversaries such as Iran. After the disclosure, first reported by the New York Times and Der Spiegel, China demanded a halt to any such activity and called for an explanation…

Analysts said that China and Russia were unlikely to be convinced by Hagel’s remarks. Revelations about the NSA’s activities, based on documents provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, make U.S. assertions that it is focused on protecting U.S. national security — and not actively infiltrating others’ networks — that much harder to accept, they said.

Excerpts from: Ellen Nakashima, U.S. cyberwarfare force to grow significantly, defense secretary says, Washington Post, Mar. 28, 2014

See also http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=121928

 

Space – the Wild West

Space is a current and future battleground without terrain, where invisible enemies conceivably could mount undetectable attacks to devastating effect if the right deterrent and defensive plans aren’t pursued now, the assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs told a think tank audience on Sept. 17, 2013  Madelyn R. Creedon spoke to a Stimson Center gathering whose audience included analysts focused on the question of deterrence in space. The center released a publication this week titled “Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations,” presenting a number of essays examining various perspectives on space deterrence.

Creedon noted that in Defense Department parlance, deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or the belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In other words, she said, if deterrence is effective, an adversary has or believes he has more to lose than to gain by attacking.  Deterrence remains a core defense strategy for the United States, she added, and the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “still alive and well.”  Creedon acknowledged that one classic approach to considering space deterrence — that is, preventing potential enemies from attacking U.S. or partner satellites and other military or economic assets in space — is to try to apply lessons learned during the Cold War. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy diplomatic truce and piled up enough nuclear weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction.

But one flaw to comparing the two deterrent challenges, she said, is that an attack that disables a satellite, unlike one from a nuclear warhead that flattens a major city, doesn’t threaten a nation’s existence. Another is that the two superpowers spent decades constructing an elaborate, mirrored, deterrent Cold War architecture and protocols, while space is still, comparatively, “the Wild West.” A third is that an attack in space or cyberspace may rely on digital rather than conventional weapons, and so could occur without warning or even detection.

“If there is an attack against a space asset, it isn’t visible,” she said. “You can’t watch it on CNN, and unless you’re directly affected by the capability that the space assets provide, you’re probably completely oblivious that the attack happened.”

She said DOD is developing and implementing what safeguards it can implement in space using four mutually supportive elements to deter others from taking action against U.S. assets:

— Working to internationalize norms and establish a code of conduct to enhance stability;

— Building coalitions to enhance security;

— Adding resilience to U.S. space architectures; and

— Preparing for an attack on U.S. and allied space assets using defenses “not necessarily in space.”

“We believe this four-element approach … will bolster deterrence,” Creedon said.

The department is working with the State Department and international partners to define elements of good behavior in space, she said. “States must remain committed to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, security and stability of the outer-space environment,” she added.  Creedon said work is underway to build deterrent coalitions and increase space awareness. She said the “Five Eyes” nations, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are extending their intelligence cooperation to expand their collective space situational awareness…

The United States is meanwhile working to lower the benefit to potential attackers by employing more satellites, participating in satellite constellations with other countries and purchasing payload space on commercial satellites when feasible.  Creedon said the U.S. approach to space deterrence is similar to its strategy in any domain: take “prudent preparations to survive, and to operate through, and, hopefully, prevail in any conflict.”

By Karen Parrish, Official Describes Evolution of Space Deterrence, American Forces Press Service, Sept. 19, 2013

US Cyberattacks against Enemies: Afghanistan

The U.S. military has been launching cyberattacks against its opponents in Afghanistan, a senior officer says, making an unusually explicit acknowledgment of the oft-hidden world of electronic warfare.  Marine Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills’ comments came last week at a conference in Baltimore during which he explained how U.S. commanders considered cyber weapons an important part of their arsenal.  “I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact,” Mills said. “I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations.”

Mills, now a deputy commandant with the Marine Corps, was in charge of international forces in southwestern Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011, according to his official biography. He didn’t go into any further detail as to the nature or scope of his forces’ attacks, but experts said that such a public admission that they were being carried out was itself striking.  “This is news,” said James Lewis, a cyber-security analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said that while it was generally known in defense circles that cyberattacks had been carried out by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he had never seen a senior officer take credit for them in such a way.  “It’s not secret,” Lewis said in a telephone interview, but he added: “I haven’t seen as explicit a statement on this as the one” Mills made.  The Pentagon did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Mills’ speech.

U.S. defense planners have spent the past few years wondering aloud about how and under what circumstances the Pentagon would launch a cyber attack against its enemies, but it’s only recently become apparent that a sophisticated program of U.S.-backed cyberattacks is already under way.  A book by The New York Times reporter David Sanger recently recounted how President Barack Obama ordered a wave of electronic incursions aimed at physically sabotaging Iran’s disputed atomic energy program. Subsequent reports have linked the program to a virus dubbed Flame, which prompted a temporary Internet blackout across Iran’s oil industry in April, and another virus called Gauss, which appeared to have been aimed at stealing information from customers of Lebanese banks. An earlier report alleged that U.S. forces in Iraq had hacked into a terrorist group’s computer there to lure its members into an ambush.

Herbert Lin, a cyber expert at the National Research Council, agreed that Mills’ comments were unusual in terms of the fact that they were made publicly. But Lin said that the United States was, little by little, opening up about the fact that its military was launching attacks across the Internet.  “The U.S. military is starting to talk more and more in terms of what it’s doing and how it’s doing it,” he said. “A couple of years ago it was hard to get them to acknowledge that they were doing offense at all — even as a matter of policy, let alone in specific theaters or specific operations.”

Mills’ brief comments about cyberattacks in Afghanistan were delivered to the TechNet Land Forces East conference in Baltimore on Aug. 15, but they did not appear to have attracted much attention at the time. Footage of the speech was only recently posted to the Internet by conference organizers

Marine General: We Launched Cyberattacks Against Afghanistan, CBS News, Aug. 24, 2012

United States, Iran and the Stuxnet Worm

From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.  Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.  At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.  “Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.  Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed. In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that. The last of that series of attacks, a few weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world, temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium.

This account of the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program is based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day.  These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.

Whether Iran is still trying to design and build a weapon is in dispute. The most recent United States intelligence estimate concludes that Iran suspended major parts of its weaponization effort after 2003, though there is evidence that some remnants of it continue.

Iran initially denied that its enrichment facilities had been hit by Stuxnet, then said it had found the worm and contained it. Last year, the nation announced that it had begun its own military cyberunit, and Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, said that the Iranian military was prepared “to fight our enemies” in “cyberspace and Internet warfare.” But there has been scant evidence that it has begun to strike back.

The United States government only recently acknowledged developing cyberweapons, and it has never admitted using them. There have been reports of one-time attacks against personal computers used by members of Al Qaeda, and of contemplated attacks against the computers that run air defense systems, including during the NATO-led air attack on Libya last year. But Olympic Games was of an entirely different type and sophistication.

It appears to be the first time the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives. The code itself is 50 times as big as the typical computer worm, Carey Nachenberg, a vice president of Symantec, one of the many groups that have dissected the code, said at a symposium at Stanford University in April. Those forensic investigations into the inner workings of the code, while picking apart how it worked, came to no conclusions about who was responsible.

A similar process is now under way to figure out the origins of another cyberweapon called Flame that was recently discovered to have attacked the computers of Iranian officials, sweeping up information from those machines. But the computer code appears to be at least five years old, and American officials say that it was not part of Olympic Games. They have declined to say whether the United States was responsible for the Flame attack.

Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.

The impetus for Olympic Games dates from 2006, when President George W. Bush saw few good options in dealing with Iran. At the time, America’s European allies were divided about the cost that imposing sanctions on Iran would have on their own economies. Having falsely accused Saddam Hussein of reconstituting his nuclear program in Iraq, Mr. Bush had little credibility in publicly discussing another nation’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranians seemed to sense his vulnerability, and, frustrated by negotiations, they resumed enriching uranium at an underground site at Natanz, one whose existence had been exposed just three years before.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took reporters on a tour of the plant and described grand ambitions to install upward of 50,000 centrifuges. For a country with only one nuclear power reactor — whose fuel comes from Russia — to say that it needed fuel for its civilian nuclear program seemed dubious to Bush administration officials. They feared that the fuel could be used in another way besides providing power: to create a stockpile that could later be enriched to bomb-grade material if the Iranians made a political decision to do so.  Hawks in the Bush administration like Vice President Dick Cheney urged Mr. Bush to consider a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities before they could produce fuel suitable for a weapon. Several times, the administration reviewed military options and concluded that they would only further inflame a region already at war, and would have uncertain results.

For years the C.I.A. had introduced faulty parts and designs into Iran’s systems — even tinkering with imported power supplies so that they would blow up — but the sabotage had had relatively little effect. General James E. Cartwright, who had established a small cyberoperation inside the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for many of America’s nuclear forces, joined intelligence officials in presenting a radical new idea to Mr. Bush and his national security team. It involved a far more sophisticated cyberweapon than the United States had designed before.

The goal was to gain access to the Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls. That required leaping the electronic moat that cut the Natanz plant off from the Internet — called the air gap, because it physically separates the facility from the outside world. The computer code would invade the specialized computers that command the centrifuges.  The first stage in the effort was to develop a bit of computer code called a beacon that could be inserted into the computers, which were made by the German company Siemens and an Iranian manufacturer, to map their operations. The idea was to draw the equivalent of an electrical blueprint of the Natanz plant, to understand how the computers control the giant silvery centrifuges that spin at tremendous speeds. The connections were complex, and unless every circuit was understood, efforts to seize control of the centrifuges could fail.

Eventually the beacon would have to “phone home” — literally send a message back to the headquarters of the National Security Agency that would describe the structure and daily rhythms of the enrichment plant. Expectations for the plan were low; one participant said the goal was simply to “throw a little sand in the gears” and buy some time. Mr. Bush was skeptical, but lacking other options, he authorized the effort.  It took months for the beacons to do their work and report home, complete with maps of the electronic directories of the controllers and what amounted to blueprints of how they were connected to the centrifuges deep underground.  Then the N.S.A. and a secret Israeli unit respected by American intelligence officials for its cyberskills set to work developing the enormously complex computer worm that would become the attacker from within.  The unusually tight collaboration with Israel was driven by two imperatives. Israel’s Unit 8200, a part of its military, had technical expertise that rivaled the N.S.A.’s, and the Israelis had deep intelligence about operations at Natanz that would be vital to making the cyberattack a success. But American officials had another interest, to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. To do that, the Israelis would have to be convinced that the new line of attack was working. The only way to convince them, several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.

Soon the two countries had developed a complex worm that the Americans called “the bug.” But the bug needed to be tested. So, under enormous secrecy, the United States began building replicas of Iran’s P-1 centrifuges, an aging, unreliable design that Iran purchased from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear chief who had begun selling fuel-making technology on the black market. Fortunately for the United States, it already owned some P-1s, thanks to the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.  When Colonel Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, he turned over the centrifuges he had bought from the Pakistani nuclear ring, and they were placed in storage at a weapons laboratory in Tennessee. The military and intelligence officials overseeing Olympic Games borrowed some for what they termed “destructive testing,” essentially building a virtual replica of Natanz, but spreading the test over several of the Energy Department’s national laboratories to keep even the most trusted nuclear workers from figuring out what was afoot.

Those first small-scale tests were surprisingly successful: the bug invaded the computers, lurking for days or weeks, before sending instructions to speed them up or slow them down so suddenly that their delicate parts, spinning at supersonic speeds, self-destructed. After several false starts, it worked. One day, toward the end of Mr. Bush’s term, the rubble of a centrifuge was spread out on the conference table in the Situation Room, proof of the potential power of a cyberweapon. The worm was declared ready to test against the real target: Iran’s underground enrichment plant.

“Previous cyberattacks had effects limited to other computers,” Michael V. Hayden, the former chief of the C.I.A., said, declining to describe what he knew of these attacks when he was in office. “This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction,” rather than just slow another computer, or hack into it to steal data…  Getting the worm into Natanz, however, was no easy trick. The United States and Israel would have to rely on engineers, maintenance workers and others — both spies and unwitting accomplices — with physical access to the plant. “That was our holy grail,” one of the architects of the plan said. “It turns out there is always an idiot around who doesn’t think much about the thumb drive in their hand.”

In fact, thumb drives turned out to be critical in spreading the first variants of the computer worm; later, more sophisticated methods were developed to deliver the malicious code.  The first attacks were small, and when the centrifuges began spinning out of control in 2008, the Iranians were mystified about the cause, according to intercepts that the United States later picked up. “The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence,” one of the architects of the early attack said.  The Iranians were confused partly because no two attacks were exactly alike. Moreover, the code would lurk inside the plant for weeks, recording normal operations; when it attacked, it sent signals to the Natanz control room indicating that everything downstairs was operating normally. “This may have been the most brilliant part of the code,” one American official said.

Later, word circulated through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, that the Iranians had grown so distrustful of their own instruments that they had assigned people to sit in the plant and radio back what they saw.  “The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid, which is what happened,” the participant in the attacks said. When a few centrifuges failed, the Iranians would close down whole “stands” that linked 164 machines, looking for signs of sabotage in all of them. “They overreacted,” one official said. “We soon discovered they fired people.”

Imagery recovered by nuclear inspectors from cameras at Natanz — which the nuclear agency uses to keep track of what happens between visits — showed the results. There was some evidence of wreckage, but it was clear that the Iranians had also carted away centrifuges that had previously appeared to be working well.  But by the time Mr. Bush left office, no wholesale destruction had been accomplished. Meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House days before his inauguration, Mr. Bush urged him to preserve two classified programs, Olympic Games and the drone program in Pakistan. Mr. Obama took Mr. Bush’s advice….

But the good luck did not last. In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

“I don’t think we have enough information,” Mr. Obama told the group that day, according to the officials. But in the meantime, he ordered that the cyberattacks continue. They were his best hope of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program unless economic sanctions began to bite harder and reduced Iran’s oil revenues.

American cyberattacks are not limited to Iran, but the focus of attention, as one administration official put it, “has been overwhelmingly on one country.” There is no reason to believe that will remain the case for long. Some officials question why the same techniques have not been used more aggressively against North Korea. Others see chances to disrupt Chinese military plans, forces in Syria on the way to suppress the uprising there, and Qaeda operations around the world. “We’ve considered a lot more attacks than we have gone ahead with,” one former intelligence official said….

Mr. Obama has repeatedly told his aides that there are risks to using — and particularly to overusing — the weapon. In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

DAVID E. SANGER,Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran, New York Times, June 1, 2012