Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Warns of Cyber Arms Race

Monday, June 18, 2012

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According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website, the publication was "established by Manhattan Project scientists in 1945 to inform the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons and other catastrophic threats to humanity."

, Executive Director of the publication, is warning of the parallels between the dawn of the atomic age and the unforeseen consequences we may face with the emergence of a cyber arms race.

Benedict writes that "over the past decade, US experts have strenuously warned about the ominous possibility of other nations, rogue states, or even terrorist groups attacking US infrastructure through the Internet. As it happens, however, it is the United States that has developed malicious software in secrecy and launched it against another country -- in this case, Iran."

Specifically, Benedict is referring to the disclosure that the U.S. government development the Stuxnet virus as a cyber weapon that was detailed in a New York Times article by writer David Sanger.

"With confirmation that the United States was behind the 2010 cyberattack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facility, the world has officially entered a new era of warfare... The parallels with the invention and first use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are eerie," writes

Stuxnet, which was first recognized in 2010, is thought to have caused severe damage to equipment at Iranian uranium enrichment facilities, setting back the nation's weapons program by as much as several years.

And how ironic that the first acknowledged military use of cyberwarfare is ostensibly to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A new age of mass destruction will begin in an effort to close a chapter from the first age of mass destruction," noted Benedict.

Stuxnet is considered to be a significant advancement in malware as the infection did not merely cause problems with the targeted systems, but was able to affect kinetic damage on the equipment those systems controlled.

Benedict sees more than just casual simularities between the development and implementation of cyber weapons and the events that unfolded during the rush to produce atomic weapons during World War II.

First, government and scientific leaders invent a new kind of weapon out of fear that others will develop it first and threaten the United States. Second, the consequences of using the new weapon -- both the material damage it might cause as well as its effects on international security and arms-race dynamics -- are poorly understood. Third, scientists and engineers warn political and military leaders about the dangers of the new weapon and call for international cooperation to create rules of the road. Fourth, despite warnings by experts, the US government continues to develop this new class of weaponry, ultimately unleashing it without warning and without public discussion of its implications for peace and security."

Benedict also believes there are parallels between the cautionary analysis of some cybersecurity experts with regards to the weaponizing of cyberspace and the reaction many in the scientific field had to the pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities.

"Just as some scientists tried in vain to warn of the consequences of a first use of atomic weapons and an ensuing arms race based on nationalism and fear, so today's independent scientists and engineers have warned about the perilous effects of cyberwarfare. Unfortunately, once again, the warnings have fallen on deaf ears," Benedict said.

"In the case of cyberweapon attacks, it is also very hard at this early stage to predict how much damage could be inflicted on societies. While malware might not cause the immediate horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ensuing chaos from bringing down, for example, air-traffic control systems, electrical grids, and financial markets would cause widespread damage, incredible hardship, and even death. We have come to know how nuclear weapons can destroy societies and human civilization. We have not yet begun to understand how cyberwarfare might destroy our way of life," Benedict continued.

Now that the the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, Benedict is urging that multiple stakeholders engage in a process to better determine how the weaponization of cyberspace could impact the long term security posture of the nation.

"We do know, however, that the United States has much to lose from unrestrained cyberattack capabilities that might be spread around the world. In fact, the United States is so highly dependent on information and communications technology in every sector of society that it may be more vulnerable to attack than other countries. That's why we need vigorous public discussion about this new class of weaponry. The stakes are too high to leave decisions in the hands of military and intelligence officers, or behind the closed doors of the situation room in the White House," Benedict wrote.

Source:  http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/kennette-benedict/stuxnet-and-the-bomb

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