Then we assumed that the attack against the centrifuge drive system was the simple and basic predecessor after which the big one was launched, the attack against the cascade protection system. The cascade protection system attack is a display of absolute cyberpower. It appeared logical to assume a development from simple to complex. Several years later, it turned out that the opposite was the case. Why would the attackers go back to basics? […]
In other words, blowing the cover of this online sabotage campaign came with benefits. Uncovering Stuxnet was the end of the operation, but not necessarily the end of its utility. Unlike traditional Pentagon hardware, one cannot display USB drives at a military parade. The Stuxnet revelation showed the world what cyberweapons could do in the hands of a superpower. It also saved America from embarrassment. If another country — maybe even an adversary — had been first in demonstrating proficiency in the digital domain, it would have been nothing short of another Sputnik moment in U.S. history. So there were plenty of good reasons not to sacrifice mission success for fear of detection.
In previous posts, I have discussed how information has value. This is both in the eyes of attackers as well as the information’s original controllers. I have also written several tutorials, such as those on GPG or OPSEC, that by implication state that anonymity has worth. After all, what is the point of privacy if it has no value? What the article above demonstrates is a corollary to that theme. Specifically, when you utilize stealth, one of its powers is found in giving it up.
The mathematics that investigates competitive self-interest is known as game theory. Simplified, it states that rational actors will behave in a logical manner. Specifically, rational actors will attempt to maximize success, however that is quantified in the models involved. It is utilized in everything from economic modeling to poker. In this case, we will see how utilizing a more obvious weapon than its predecessor is rational.
It was no secret that the United States was working against Iran’s nuclear research programs. What was not clear was what efforts, if any, were being made outside of economic sanctions or other “non-violent” means (the applicability of the adjective “non-violent” of sanctions are outside of this discussion).
What the article quoted above indicates is that the Iranian nuclear research facilities had been compromised for some time. While it did not bring the research to a stop, it would both delay it and raise doubts as to the capabilities of the technical staff involved. This would hopefully allow time for other avenues to bring the research to a complete halt. However, despite the value in this, the technique was modified to instead utilize the payload found in Stuxnet.
This would increase the visibility of the attack, but it is possible that at this point that was the desired goal. It would continue causing delays in the research program, and with a smaller risk of escalation than a military strike (warning: PDF). Additionally, even if discovered it would most likely not cause a war given the ongoing debate over the role of cyber attacks in warfare. What it would do, however, is expose that they had the capability of doing so.
The results of this were obvious. First, the U.S. and their allies faced retribution. While not desirable, such attacks were easier to absorb than the projected asymmetric physical responses, such as car bombings. The response was found in software-based asymmetric responses instead such as Saudi Aramco and various Western banks. The correlation between the methods used both in the initial attack on Natanz and the response indicates that this may have been the desired response.
Given that asymmetric response was going to happen, and that malware and other information-based attacks are already utilized and asymmetric (warning: PDF), perhaps it was desired due to its existing threat. Assuming that those making the decision were in fact rational actors, it means that they saw the many revelations that would come from Stuxnet would inform other actors of their capabilities. By doing so it showed that in the event of such an attack on its own infrastructure the U.S. could respond in-kind.