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From Bullets to Megabytes

Author: Richard A. Falkenrath, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security
January 27, 2011
New York Times


Stuxnet, the computer worm that last year disrupted many of the gas centrifuges central to Iran's nuclear program, is a powerful weapon in the new age of global information warfare. A sophisticated half-megabyte of computer code apparently accomplished what a half-decade of United Nations Security Council resolutions could not.

This new form of warfare has several implications that are only now becoming apparent, and that will define the shape of what will likely become the next global arms race — albeit one measured in computer code rather than firepower.

For one thing, the Stuxnet attack highlights the ambiguous boundaries of sovereignty in cyberspace. Promoting national security in the information age will, from time to time, cause unpredictable offense to the rights and interests of innocent people, companies and countries.

Stuxnet attacked the Iranian nuclear program, but it did so by maliciously manipulating commercial software products sold globally by major Western companies. Whoever launched the assault also infected thousands of computers in several countries, including Australia, Britain, Indonesia and the United States.

This kind of collateral damage to the global civilian realm is going to be the norm, not the exception, and advanced economies, which are more dependent on advanced information systems, will be at particular risk.

What's more, offensive and defensive information warfare are tightly, insidiously coupled, which will significantly complicate military-industrial relations.

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