When tanks first rolled onto the field of battle, the soldiers watched and knew that war would never be the same. When planes and submarines began to fly far above or lurk deep in the sea, people knew that the old ways were about to change. These paradigm shifts on the landscape of war trumpeted their arrival and everyone knew that another dog of war had entered the fight. But then, a new front appeared out of the blue.
In 2010, when industrial computers the world over began to get infected by a virus called Stuxnet, it seemed like just another malicious malware in the world. But as programmers methodically dissected the virus it quickly became apparent that this was not just an ordinary virus.
The sophistication of Stuxnet was beyond nearly anything that had come before. By performing a tiered attack exploiting four separate zero day vulnerabilities to infiltrate Windows, Stuxnet was able to spread prolifically and hide itself. Once the systems were infected, the virus would record regular operations and then simulate them so the computer would not notice any abnormal operations. This told engineers that everything was fine while burning out the machines the computers controlled.
Due to the complex nature of Stuxnuet, experts rushed to proclaim it could not have been the work of a single individual, but rather a well-funded group of individuals working cohesively for a long period of time. The virus, which had no financial purpose for the creators (an uncommon occurrence in a world where viruses traditionally aim at generating profit for their creator), was solely focused on causing harm to a rare industrial system.
While the virus affected countries across the globe, it was hardest felt in Iran. And while diverse industrial machines were affected, the virus was particularly effective at sabotaging nuclear centrifuges.
This trend, coupled with the sophistication of the attack, led many to suspect it was the loudest shot yet in a previously unheard of field of warfare: cyber warfare.
Whether it was or not will be the subject of endless debate, and probably a few books, by endless experts. But, with the media outcry and the perception that this was an operation by a nation, the field has been opened. The gloves have come off and there will be no putting them back on. Cyber warfare and electronic sabotage have been thrust into the limelight of world politics, and the world has been watching.
This opening shot is the marking of a new page in warfare, one we knew was coming but has apparently now arrived. It has also opened the doors for even more technology development and use within Homeland Security and the Armed Forces. This goes beyond using drones, beyond using robots to diffuse land mines. No longer are a few good men enough – we need all the tech-savvy cyber dudes on deck. This harbinger, only half a megabyte in size, has ushered in a new era that will rock nations, and society, to their core.