President Obama's 'Olympic Games': 5 Pros and Cons of Using Cyber Weapons

Earlier this week the New York Times published an article on Obama’s use of cyber weapons since he took office. Besides the revelation that he has been more aggressive using them against Iran than people suppose, via an operation known as “Olympic Games,” the article also discussed technical factors that citizens should keep in mind when reading about cyber warfare. Here are 5 of them:

• Cyber Weapons take years to develop and are multistage tools:  The decision to launch Operation Olympic Games was made by President George W. Bush in 2006 when negotiations to launch an embargo against Iran were facing difficulty. Computer experts then had to find a way to insert the virus into the nuclear plant’s control equipment, map the entire computer system, and design a virus that could physically destroy the centrifuges without alerting the staff it was doing so. 

The team then had to physically transfer that virus (which is 50x larger than most) via thumb drives back into the nuclear plant and later deliver more damaging versions that eventually took out over 1,000 centrifuges. Needless to say, the images we see from the movies of hackers doing large amounts of damage with the single click of a key are terrible inaccurate. Cyber attacks are extraordinarily difficult to execute, although the military is doing everything it can to speed the process up.   

• Cyber Weapons have proven to be able to jump between computer systems:  While the virus that attacked Iran’s centrifuges was designed to operate only in the environment of the Natanz nuclear plant, it still managed to jump from the plant into the wider world in 2010 through a laptop used by an Iranian engineer studying the problem. Given how the virus later known as “Stuxnet” is the first to actually inflict physical damage, we are lucky that it only targets nuclear centrifuges.  Should a different virus target a nation’s economic or infrastructure systems, the damage could be catastrophic. Cyber Weapons should be used very sparingly against a very limited set of targets.

• The operation was conducted with Israel to prevent it from bombing Iran: Interestingly, Operation Olympic Games was executed with the help of Israel, particularly Unit 8200, a military group that specializes in cyber warfare and signals intelligence like America’s NSA. This was done to convince the Israelis not to attack Iran and that alternative methods were working, thereby preventing a disastrous regional war and solidifying the Iranian regime’s hold over the populace.  This provides an example of how cyber weapons can serve as an alternative tool to exert force in a way that avoids wide-scale destruction, if a very unreliable one.    

• Security Officials are eager to apply cyberweapons to a broader range of targets: Given the effectiveness of the attack, there are now people in the administration advocating for their use against North Korea, Syria, Al-Qaeda, and China. President Obama has fought back against the idea, saying that it would justify attacks against the U.S., but it is still disconcerting to hear of experts arguing that cyber weapons are somehow a silver bullet to all our international problems.  

Should such a view ever become the dominant one, it would truly usher in an era of cyber warfare against a diverse array of targets with weapons that have the potential to infect other systems with possibly grave consequences.  While there is no official doctrine for how to use such weapons, perhaps there ought to be.   

• There are still other cyber weapons floating around:  A different virus, known as “Flame” has also struck Iran, copying information from the computers of Iranian officials. While the virus is older and has yet to be attributed to anyone, if it proves to be a U.S. weapon then the scale of the campaign against Iran will be larger than anyone previously suspected.  Moreover, if this virus goes on to attack other computers, it will present an enormous challenge to online privacy and the U.S. responsibility (perhaps culpability?) for international data protection.

Given this new information, citizens should think critically whenever they hear the media speak of cyber weapons or cyber warfare. If constructed and targeted properly, cyber weapons can achieve results that would be impossible otherwise. They are not, however, a silver bullet to America's problems with foreign powers.