The Stuxnet/Olympic games malware is awesome and the engineering teams deserve respect. There, I said it. The first in-the-field sighting of a mil-spec virus puts the mass market toys to shame. It is the difference between the first amateur rockets and the V1 cruise and V2 ballistic missiles launched against the UK in WWII. It also represents that same change in warfare.
I say this having watched the documentary Zero Days about nation-state hacking. One thing I like about it is it's underdramatization of the coders. Gone the clichéd angled shots of the hooded faceless hacker coding in darkness to a bleeping text prompt on a screen that looks like something from the matrix. Instead: offices with fluorescent lights compensating for the fact that the only people allocated windows are managers. What matrix-esque screen shots there were contained x86 assembly code in the font of IDA, showing asm code snippets accurate enough to give me flashbacks of when I wrote Win32/C++ code. Add some music and coffee mugs and it'd start to look like the real world.
The one thing they missed out on is the actual engineering; the issue tracker, with OLYMPIC-342, "doesn't work with Farsi version of Word" being the topic of the standup; the monthly regression test panic when when windows or flash updates shipped and everyone feared the upgrade had fixed the exploits. Classic engineering, hampered by the fact that the end users would never send stack traces. Even determining if your code worked in production would depend on intermittent status reports from the UN or order numbers for new parts from down the centrifuge supply chain. Let's face it: even getting the test hardware must have been an epic achievement of its own.
Because Olympic Games was not just a piece of malware using multiple zero days and stolen driver certificates to gain admin access on gateway systems before jumping the airgap over USB keys and then slowly sabotage the Iranian centrifuges. It was evidence that the government(s) behind decided that cyber-warfare (a term I really hate) had moved from a theoretical "look, this uranium stuff has energy" to the strategic "let's call this the manhattan project"
And it showed that they were prepared to apply their work against a strategic asset of another country, during peacetime. And had a larger program Nitro Zeus, intended to be the opening move of a war with Iran.
As with those missiles and their payloads, the nature of war has been redefined.
In Churchill's epic five volume history of WWII, he talks about the D-day landings, and how he wanted to watch it from a destroyer, but was blocked by King George, you ware too valuable". Churchill wrote that everyone on those beaches felt that they were too valuable to be there too -and that the people making the decisions should be there to see the consequences of them. He shortly thereafter goes on to discuss the first V1 attacks on London, discussing their morality. He felt that the "war-head". (a new word) was too indiscriminate. He was right - but given this was 14 months ahead of August 1945, his morality didn't run that deep. Or the V1 and V2 bombings had convinced him that it was the future. (Caveat: I've ignored RAF Bomber Command as it would only complicate this essay).
Eric Schlosser's book, Command and Control, discussed the post-war evolution of defence strategy in a nuclear age, and how nuclear weapons scared the military. before: 1000 bombers to destroy a city like Hamburg or Coventry. Now only one plane had to get through the air defences, and the country had lost. Which changed the economics and logistics of destroying nearby countries. The barrier to entry had just been reduced.
The whole strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction evolved there, which, luckily for us, managed to scrape us though to the twenty-first century: to now. But that doctrine wasn't immediate, and even there, the whole notion of tactical vs. strategic armaments skirted around the fact that once the first weapons went off over Germany or Korea, things were going to escalate.
Looking back though, you can see those step changes in technology and how the leading edge technologies of each war enabled the doctrine of the next. the US civil war: rifles, machine guns, ironclad naval vessels, the first wire obstacles on the battlefield. WWI: the trenches with their barbed wire and machine guns; planes and tanks the new tech, radio the emergent communications alongside those telegraphs issuing orders to "go over the top!" . WWII and Blitzkreig was built around planes and trains, radio critical to choreograph it; the Spanish civil war used to hone the concept and to inure Europe to the acceptance of bombing cities.
And in the Cold War, as discussed, missiles, computers and nuclear weapons were the tools of choice.
What now? Nuclear missiles are still the game-over weapons for humanity, but the non-nuclear weapons have changed and so the tactics of war have changed at. And just as the Manhattan Project showed how easy it was to flatten a city, the Olympic Games has shown how much damage you can do with laptops and a dedicated engineering team.
One of the screenshots in the documentary was of the North Korean dev team. They don't look like a dev team I'd recognise. It looks like the place where "breaking the build" carries severe punishment rather than having to keep the "I broke the build!" poster(*) up in your cubicle until a successor inherited it. But it was an engineering team, and a lot less expensive than their same government's missile program. And, it's something which can be used today, rather than used as a threat you dare not use.
What now? We have the weapons, perhaps a doctrine will emerge. What's likely is that you'll see multiple levels of attack
The 2016 election; the Sony hack: passive attack: data exfiltration and anonymous & selective release. We may as well assume the attacks are common, it's only in special cases that we get to directly see the outcome so tangibly.
Olympic Games and the rumoured BTC pipeline attack: destruction of targets -in peacetime, with deniability. These are deliberate attacks on the infrastructures of nations, executed without public announcement.
Nitro Zeus (undeployed) : this is the one we all have to fear in scale, but do we have to fear it's use? As the opening move to an invasion, it's the kind of thing that could be deployed against Estonia or other countries previously forced into the CCCP against their will. Kill all communications, shut down the the cities and within 24h Russian Troops could be in there "to protect Russian speakers from the chaos". China as a precursor to a forced reunification with Taiwan. Then there's North Korea. It's hard to see what a country that irrational would do -especially if they thought they could get away with it.
Us in the west?
Excluding Iraq, the smaller countries that Trump doesn't like: Cuba, N. Korea lack that infrastructure to destroy. The big target would be his new enemy, China -but hopefully the entirety of new administration isn't that mad. So instead it becomes a deterrent against equivalent attacks from other nation states with suitable infrastructure.
What we can't do though is use to as a deterrent for Stuxnet-class attacks, not just on account of the destruction it would cause, but because it's so hard to attribute blame.
I suspect what is going to happen is something a bit like the evolution of the Drone Warfare doctrine under Obama: it'll become acceptable to deploy Stuxnet-class attacks against other countries, in peacetime. Trump would no doubt love the power, though his need to seek public adulation will hamper the execution. You can't deny your work when your president announces it on twitter.
At the same time, I can imagine the lure of non-attributable damage to a competing nation state. Something that hurts and hinders them -but if they can't point the blame , what's not to lose.? That I could the Trump Regime going for -and if it does happen to, say, China, and they work it out -well, it's going to escalate.
Because that has always been the problem with the whole tactical to strategic nuclear arsenal. Once you've made the leap from conventional to nuclear weapons, it was going to escalate all the way.
Do we really think "cyber-weaponry" isn't going to go the same way? From deleting a few files, or shutting down a factory to disrupting transport, a power grid?
(*) the poster was a photo of the George Bush "mission accomplished" carrier landing, as I recall.