Risks of boomerangs a reality in world of cyberwar

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Much of the code used to build the virus is old and available on the Internet, said Becky Bace, chief strategist at the Center for Forensics, Information Technology and Security at the University of South Alabama. Flame could have been developed by a small team of smart people who are motivated and have financial backing, she said, making it just as likely a criminal enterprise or a group working as surrogates could have been responsible.

“Here’s the wake-up call as far as cyber is concerned: You don’t have to be a nation-state to have what it would take to put together a threat of this particular level of sophistication,” said Bace, who spent 12 years at the National Security Agency working on intrusion detection and network security. “There’s no secret sauce here.”

Stuxnet was far more complex.

Still, Stuxnet could not have worked without detailed intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program that was obtained through conventional spycraft, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, a digital security company in Helsinki, Finland. The countries with the motivation and the means to gather that data are the United States and Israel, he said.

“This is at the level of complexity that very few organizations in the world would even attempt,” said Hypponen, who has studied Stuxnet and Flame. “Basically you have to have moles. Most of what they needed to pull this off was most likely collected with what we would characterize as traditional intelligence work.”

The more intricately designed a cyberweapon is, the less likely it will boomerang. Stuxnet spread well beyond the Iranian computer networks it was intended to hit. But the collateral damage was minimal because the virus was developed to go after very specific targets.

“When some of these super sophisticated things spread, it’s bad but it may not have the same impact because the virus itself is so complex,” said Jacob Olcott, a senior cybersecurity expert at Good Harbor Consulting. “It’s designed to only have its impact when it finds certain conditions.”

Israel is a world leader in cybertechnology and senior Israeli officials did little to deflect suspicion about that country’s involvement in cyberweapons. “Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it,” said Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief and minister of strategic affairs.

A senior defense official involved in Israel’s cyberwarfare program said Friday that, “Israel is investing heavily in units that deal with cyberwarfare both for defense and offense.” He would not elaborate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak with the media.

Isaac Ben-Israel, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on cybersecurity issues, declined Friday to say whether Israel was involved with Stuxnet.

It could take years to know who is responsible, which is what is so unsettling about attacks in cyberspace. “We are very good as an industry at figuring out what a piece of malware does,” said Dave Marcus, director of advanced research and threat intelligence at digital security giant McAfee. “But we are less accurate when it comes to saying what group is responsible for it, or it came from this country or that organization.”

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Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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