Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A New World

A short story

By Jacob Wall

Ten years ago, an unusual little piece of maldoing slipped its way into the computer system. It danced past firewalls and antivirals, right into Iran’s fuel enrichment plant. Much as a master of espionage, its presence was entirely undetected until it spun the centrifuges out of control, creating a very detectable explosion.

And so, with the creation of this virus, Stuxnet, as it was called, began a new age of warfare. One that is not waged in the real world but rather in a world of electrical pulses and signals, yet in a way that has very real world consequences.

Here I am now, some ten years later with a small piece of paper certifying my aptitude, hanging on the wall just behind me. My team and I are waiting for the next attack, the next activist, terrorist, criminal, or country to try their hand. Our eyes start to glaze over as we stare at our computers, not a signal of something gone wrong. Similar to those scientists monitoring Natanz those ten years ago, we see everything, yet nothing.

The interesting thing about criminals in the cyber world is that they rarely take the form of criminals. They do not dress in leather, they do not ride Harleys, they do not beat people, and they most likely would help an old lady cross the street. Yet, when they sit down at their computer, they change, they become mad scientists, and that’s when something bad happens – a few million disappear, a few planes crash, a few blackouts roll across New York. It is for these reasons that everyone from street gangs to clandestine government agencies employ these mad scientists, and give them the resources to do real harm, to cripple a nation, our nation.

Suddenly, my desk phone rings, awoken from my daydream I hasten to answer, and across the line I hear the news. We’ve been compromised. The word is sharp, penetrating, yet numbing; my team failed, and now something has gone terribly awry.

So much of our world is run by an intricate computer known as a programmable controller. It’s a small device that controls big things. It was, coincidentally, this type of computer that was attacked ten years ago in Iran; it was the first time that such a thing occurred, that a malware could so easily do so much damage to the real, physical world. And it was this type of computer that was under attack once more, this time on a boat.

The United States Navy operates eleven aircraft carriers, and each one found itself under attack. However, this is not the type of attack that carriers prepare for, this type of attack came from deep within. The carriers were flooding their holds with water, a very destabilizing experience – and nobody knew why; with so much dependence on computers to do things for us, the captains found themselves unable to switch to a manual control to right the ship, for there is no manual control.

The voice on the other side of the phone demanded that we save the ships. We truly were the only ones in the world who could, soldiers armed with guns are not capable of fighting this kind of enemy, only soldiers armed with bright minds and powerful computers can do such things. Sadly, these ships were far past saving. Every last US carrier sank that day, taking all their men down with them - billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

As expected, my team and I lost our jobs that day. We had let such a disaster slip right past us. Of course, this was not entirely our fault. As our logs showed, there was not a sign of the disaster until after I received the call, it was for this reason we are not in some far off military-funded torture camp.

That is precisely what I find amusing.

I do not wear leather, I have never ridden a Harley, I most certainly have never harmed someone, and I’ve helped the elderly across the street on a number of occasions. I wrote the virus that sank those ships. I carried it to work, plugged it into my computer, and ensured that it slipped past any log and any team member. It’s a curious thing, 1000 lines of code and an ill-intentioned person can do so much harm.

Perhaps the scariest part is that these are weapons of anonymity, for nobody will ever know it was I.

Jacob Wall, 15, is a high school student in Washington state.

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