The United States government is developing a computer system that would allow it to conduct cyber warfare without the intervention of a human programmer.
Recently, stories have leaked detailing the U.S. government’s creation and implementation of two cyber attacks on the information systems of other nations.
“Flame” was the name of a computer virus reportedly developed and launched by the United States in order to glean critical data from computers in several Middle Eastern countries.
According to a story published in the Washington Post, the United States and Israel launched a joint venture to develop the Flame virus. Once launched into cyber space, the code reportedly collected online intelligence data that was then used to create a similar bit of malware that would cripple Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Officials cited in the Post article revealed that the effort was a collaboration of the National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the Israeli military.
One product of that Israeli-American secret enterprise was the Stuxnet virus. Stuxnet was the virus allegedly deployed by the United States to decelerate Iran’s progress toward the development of a nuclear weapon.
Apparently, Flame and Stuxnet were just the beginning of a more sophisticated and sustained American cyber assault against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. As one source quoted by the Washington Post reports:
“This is about preparing the battlefield for another type of covert action,” said one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, who added that Flame and Stuxnet were elements of a broader assault that continues today. “Cyber-collection against the Iranian program is way further down the road than this.”
There is substantial evidence that this unnamed intelligence official knew what he was talking about.
Soon after the existence of Flame and Stuxnet was uncovered (some say leaked by the Obama administration itself), the Post ran a story claiming that the ultra-secret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was preparing to test “unmanned cyber attacks” that launch themselves without the need of a human at the controls.
Last month, Ellen Nakashima wrote an article about a just such a program being carried out by DARPA. According to Nakashima, the project is codenamed Plan X, and its goal is to “develop systems that could give commanders the ability to carry out speed-of-light attacks and counterattacks using preplanned scenarios that do not involve human operators manually typing in code — a process considered much too slow.”
Yes, the need for a human being to launch these cyber attacks is seen by the government as an unnecessary speed bump, much the same way they see the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that a warrant be obtained before anyone is searched or anything is seized as a result of that search.
One former member of the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps sees the Pentagon’s creation of these weapons as the first step toward the deployment of an autonomous weapon that not only launches without human direction, but can choose its own targets, as well.
“News reports that DARPA is seeking proposals for methodologies that would automate cyber responses in predetermined scenarios is an almost inevitable development given the speed in which cyberattacks can cause harm,” said Charles Dunlap, now a Duke University Law School professor. “
The very idea of autonomous weapons systems of any kind, cyber or kinetic, is controversial on legal, ethical and even pragmatic warfighting grounds. Yet the development and deployment of such weaponry is sure to continue even as we sort out the law and policies to address it.”
For its part, the Department of Defense responds that any operations conducted by the government in cyber space will be used solely for the protection of our national security. Of course, the United States does not control the Internet, despite its best efforts. Within the worldwide web of interconnected computers, there are many who would and could develop and deploy many of the same cyber weapons against the United States.
The Pentagon knows this, as well, and is apparently taking steps to prevent it.
One such defensive measure is the National Cyber Range being created by DARPA. The Strategic Technology Office at DARPA reports the following progress and purposes of these efforts on its website:
Replicating the complexity of thousands of globally interconnected network systems is a challenge faced by researchers developing tools to protect our nation against the growing threat of cyber attacks. Sophisticated attacks as well as adaptive malware have the ability to devastate defense and commercial networks.
DARPA was tasked by the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) to “establish a front line of defense against today’s immediate threats by creating or enhancing … the ability to act quickly to reduce our current vulnerabilities and prevent intrusions” (National Security Presidential Directive 54 (NSPD)-54).
It would seem that the more we live by the cyber sword the more likely it becomes that we will eventually die by it — or at least be seriously wounded. There are those working in the shadowy world of Internet security and cyber warfare who recognize the substantial danger posed by these digital weapons to the stability of our own online infrastructure.
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