May 29, 2012

What Does Flame Mean?

There are a lot of technical descriptions of the newly discovered Flame malware.  (The most interesting one is here.)  To understand Flame in a nutshell, here’s the best overview:

Once a system is infected, Flame begins a complex set of operations, including sniffing the network traffic, taking screenshots, recording audio conversations, intercepting the keyboard, and so on. All this data is available to the operators through the link to Flame’s command-and-control servers.

Lots of people are asking “What does Flame do?”  The more important question, however, as the era of cyber war continues to evolve, is “What does Flame mean?”  Flame, in fact, shows just how far and fast we’ve come along in cyber war.  In the “old days” we saw the simple use of DDoS when Russia attacked Estonia in April of 2007.  Just five years later, Flame shows the world that cyber war has evolved into something stealthier, more effective and a serious part of a military strategy.  To borrow Andy Grove’s phrase, we’ve hit an inflection point.  Consider:

  • Cyber attack is now preferable to a military attack.  The consequences of NOT using cyber warfare now outweigh cyber pacifism.  It’s a bloodless form of war which can still inflict great damage.  (What amazing irony that the same day Flame is revealed, the New York Times highlights the US approach to terrorism that involves a targeted “kill list.”) In fact, in the case of Iran, it seems cyber attack may have proven more effective than economic sanctions that seem to have done little to stop the development of nuclear weapons. For the attacker, anonymity is a major benefit as the victim can only speculate but can’t point a finger.  Graphic images of source code just aren’t the same as pictures of dead or injured civilians when it comes to altering public opinions.  If there were a physical attack on Iran, Iranian public opinion would very likely be mobilized behind a normally unpopular government.  
  • Cyber attack is a new form of deterrence.  During the Cold War, if the US had 1,000 warheads the Soviets would try to get 1,001 which would lead to a Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a., Star Wars.  Cyber attack gives deterrence a totally new spin:  for the first time, a nation can prevent someone from garnering weapons.  And this approach, conveniently, appears morally superior and so far has proven much less costly. 
  • Cyber attack will force adversaries to minimize their electronic productivity.  It took nearly a decade to find Osama Bin Laden since he went completely off grid.  No internet or phone, just couriers.  Consequently, he became more of a titular versus operational leader.  Does this mean that scientists developing weapons will resort to crayons and paper only?  Probably not, but today life very likely got a lot harder for scientists working on military projects worldwide.

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