Libya’s Stuxnet?

A group of security professionals who have good credentials and strong links to the U.S. government have outlined a Stuxnet-type attack on Libyan infrastructure, according to a document released this week. But is the group outlining risks to regional stability, or is it advocating a cyber attack on Muammar Gadhafi?

The document, Project Cyber Dawn (PDF), was released on May 28 2011 by CSFI – the Cyber Security Forum Initiative, which describes itself as

non-profit organization headquartered in Omaha, NE and in Washington DC with a mission “to provide Cyber Warfare awareness, guidance, and security solutions through collaboration, education, volunteer work, and training to assist the US Government, US Military, Commercial Interests, and International Partners.”

CSFI now numbers about 7,500 members and an active LinkedIn forum.

To be clear, the document does not advocate anything. It merely highlights vulnerabilities, and details scenarios. It concludes, for example:

CSFI recommends the United States of America, its allies and international partners take the necessary steps toward helping normalizing Libya‘s cyber domain as a way to minimize possible future social and economic disruptions taking place through the Internet.

But before that it does say:

A cyber-attack would be among the easiest and most direct means to initially inject into the systems if unable to gain physical engineering attacks against the facility. Numerous client-side attack vectors exist that support payloads capable of compromising SCADA application platforms.

Elsewhere it says:

The area most vulnerable to a cyber-attack, which could impact not only the Libyan‘s prime source of income, but also the primary source of energy to the country, would be a focused attack on their petroleum refining facilities. Without refined products, it is difficult to fuel the trucks, tanks and planes needed to wage any effective war campaign.

The document itself is definitely worth a read; it doesn’t just focus on the cyberweapon side of things. And complicating matters is that one of the contributors to the report, a company called Unveillance, was hacked by a group called LulzSec around the time that the report was being finished. It’s not clear whether this affected release of the report.

Emails stolen from Unveillance and posted online by LulzSec indicate that two versions of the report were planned: one public one, linked to above, and one that would “go to staffers in the White House.” In another email a correspondent mentions an imminent briefing for Department of Defense officials on the report.

The only difference between the two reports that I can find are that the names of some SCADA equipment in Libya have been blacked out in the public version. The reports were being finalized when the hack took place–apparently in the second half of May.

Other commentators have suggested that we seem to have a group of security researchers and companies linked to the U.S. government apparently advocating what the U.S. government has, in its own report International Strategy for Cyberspace released May 17, would define as an act of cyberwar.

I guess I’m surprised by something else: That we have come, within a few short months, from thinking as Stuxnet as an outlier, as a sobering and somewhat shocking wake-up call to the power of the Internet as a vector for taking out supposedly resilient and well-defended machinery to having a public document airily discussing the exact same thing, only this time against non-nuclear infrastructure.

(The irony probably won’t escape some people that, according to a report in the New York Times in January, it was surrendered Libyan equipment that was used to test the effectiveness of Stuxnet before it was launched. I’m yet to be convinced that that was true, but it seems to be conventional wisdom these days.)

Frankly, I think we have to be really careful how we go about discussing these kinds of things. Yes, everything is at arm’s length in the sense that just because bodies such as CSFI may have photos of generals on their web-page, and their members talk about their reports going to the White House, doesn’t mean that their advice is snapped up.

But we’re at an odd point in the evolution of cyberwar presently, and I don’t think we have really come to terms with what we can do, what others can do, and the ramifications of that. Advocating taking out Libyan infrastructure with Stuxnet 2.0 may sound good, but it’s a road we need to think carefully about.

08. June 2011 by jeremy
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