Archive for the ‘espionage’ Category


Sunday, September 26th, 2010

We may be entering an era when cyberwar is a real threat, at least to some. I was a computer programmer in 1958-59 but that is the stone age of computing. The machine I programmed was An IBM 650 which was so primitive that it did not use hexadecimal code. This was even before FORTRAN was written so I claim no current expertise. Later, after medical school, I took some computer science courses and learned to program in Pascal and C. Still later, I learned Visual Basic but never got very far in C++ so I am pretty much a neophyte in Object Oriented Programming. The term, often abbreviated to OOP, is a way of creating small pieces of code that can be reused over and over without rewriting it and the attendant risk of error. It is also faster. This also applies to modular programming and the differences are explained in the wiki entry.

It now appears that a new “worm” has been created by someone that is capable of attacking the Iranian nuclear program. Roger Simon is the only one I have seen so far discussing it and its implications. This involves small devices called PLCs, or “Programmable Logic Controllers” some of which run your washing machine. They are the heart of computer controlled machinery, such as the 30,000 Iranian centrifuges that are purifying Uranium 235. What if all those 30,000 centrifuges went crazy, spinning so fast that they self destructed ?

This brings up the subject of Stuxnet, a computer “worm.” It attacks one specific system, the Siemens company’s SCADA systems. It happens that Siemens designed and built the SCADA systems that run its nuclear program. What a coincidence !

Has the war with Iran already begun ? Maybe.

But just as television news was transformed by technology before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and politics was transformed by social networking before it appeared that Twitter would bring about a second Iranian Revolution, process and progress need crystallizing events, where the political and cultural significance of technological innovation becomes indisputable.

Such a moment came in July with the discovery of a worm known as Stuxnet, which sought out a particular version of the Siemens’ SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems that control power grids and industrial plants. According to Ralph Langner, an expert in industrial control systems who published a study of the worm last week, Stuxnet was capable of taking over SCADA controls in order to deliver a kinetic attack by causing critical systems to physically malfunction. The systems infected weren’t randomly targeted: a majority are in Iran.

It’s an interesting idea. A lot of Windows 7 code was written by Israeli engineers. Maybe their target is more than the nuclear program.

Stuxnet is an even more dramatic transformational event: warfare is never going to be the same, at least while the underlying protocols governing the Internet create these kinds of systemic vulnerabilities. But even if there was agreement to rewrite these protocols starting tomorrow, such a project would take a decade. So, let the damage assessment begin. Who knows? By demonstrating how Iran could so very easily experience a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, or the entire destruction of its conventional energy grid, the first round of the “war” may have already been won.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have been working very hard at the same sort of thing and we had a determined cyberattack on the Pentagon e-mail system two years ago. This may be what war looks like in the future.

UPDATE: Some body is noticing.

A very interesting question

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Why were the Russian “illegal” spies repatriated so quickly ? They were exchanged for American agents but why so quickly ? Why not interrogate them for a longer period to be sure we knew what they had been doing. Many newspapers and other one-party media have ridiculed the spies’ accomplishments. Maybe they just weren’t very good and there wasn’t much to learn.

There is, however, another theory.

The speed with which the Obama administration exchanged the recently-arrested Russian “illegals” was astonishing and has led to speculation that the illegals ring may have had potentially embarrassing relationships to current or former US government officials. As a former “illegal” myself, I believe this is plausible.

The cushiest assignment in the world for a Russian intelligence officer would be to the United States, with its clean air and water, excellent medical care, and with none of the anarchy and danger that are common in so much of the world. Ambitious Russian officers would push hard to get these assignments.

For their choice of cover, they’d prefer commercial covers to diplomatic covers. Just as terrorists and nuclear proliferators are wary of meeting our diplomats overseas, American government officials in the US will be wary of meeting a Russian diplomat – they’d suspect he’s a spy. There is no diplomatic immunity for intelligence officers posing as business people, but as we have seen, a captured Russian officer is treated gently and the most likely outcome is exchange.

This is analysis from a former CIA deep cover agent whose workname was “Ishmael Jones.” There is more from this strategic thinker about intelligence.

Why were we in such a hurry to exchange the Russians ? And who were they exchanged for ?

Though one Russian website dubbed today’s transfer “Russia 10 USA 4”, western intelligence sources were claiming tonight that Britain and the US got more out of the spy swap than Russia. They said the four men released by Moscow were more serious individuals than the 10 agents handed over by the US. The four had been in jail and poorly treated.

Britain has a direct interest in Skripal, a former Russian army colonel convicted of passing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in Europe to MI6.

Skripal was sentenced in August 2006 to 13 years in jail for spying for Britain. Russian prosecutors said he had been paid $100,000 by MI6 for the information, which he had been supplying since the 1990s when he was a serving officer.

Two others, Alexander Zaporozhsky and Igor Sutyagin, were convicted of spying for the US. The fourth, Gennady Vasilenko, was sentenced to three years on murky charges of illegal weapons possession. Reasons for his involvement in the swap were not immediately clear.

Well-placed British sources said the exchange was also significant because Russia rarely gives up its citizens, as opposed to Americans or other foreigners, whom it has jailed on spying charges.

One reason given for the extreme reticence among British security and intelligence agencies to talk about the exchanges is fear the Russians would make fresh arrests to use more people as potential collateral. It is possible they were already placing potentially vulnerable people under surveillance now, the sources said, and possible targets may have been warned to lie low.

Hmmm. So the people exchanged were not Americans but Russian double agents. The whole story is peculiar.