Tuesday, February 1, 2011

William Gibson and 25 years of digi-vandalism

Last Wednesday, William Gibson (read "god" to most postmodern science fiction readers and writers) wrote an op/ed piece for The New York Times called 25 Years of Digital Vandalism.  In it, he describes the fairly banal origins of the computer virus.
The incipient computer virus was concocted by computer hobbyists and enthusiasts whose intentions, however more intellectually challenging, were no greater than those of vandals who "smash out the light fixtures in a bus shelter."  Hackers, as they were soon to be called, just wanted to see 1) if they could shut systems down with their own code, 2) what would happen if they did, and 3) the irritation on everyone's faces when it happened.  This hacking soon graduated to a means of stealing passwords, identities...and even attacking other nations.

Last fall, the control systems of an Iranian nuclear facility was hit by a computer worm called "Stuxnet".   If the reactor were to go online, insiders warn of a "Chernobyl"-type event.  Best case scenario would mean a meltdown of the entire reactor, the worst would be a detonation equivalent to a low-yield nuclear weapon.   
"But the announcement raised suspicions, and new questions, about the origins and target of the worm, Stuxnet, which computer experts say is a far cry from common computer malware that has affected the Internet for years. A worm is a self-replicating malware computer program. A virus is malware that infects its target by attaching itself to programs or documents.  Stuxnet, which was first publicly identified several months ago, is aimed solely at industrial equipment made by Siemens that controls oil pipelines, electric utilities, nuclear facilities and other large industrial sites." (NYT)
Of course, no nation is taking responsibility for the cyber-attack.  Leading theory at this time is that it was Israel acting with help from the U.S.  Politically, that seems to make the most sense.

But as Gibson points out, "Stuxnet isn’t spectacularly original, as computer worms go, and those Iranian systems aren’t terribly exotic. They’re like ours. As a result, I expect we’ll see a wave of unpleasant backwash, with military money and technology beefing up the code..."
Rather amazing that what started as little more than a "window soaping" from computer pranksters could be the weapon d'jour of the future.

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