Remote control – the digital virus

I rather think that sometimes governments do some stupid things, usually while patting themselves on the back as a reward for their supreme cleverness. As an example, have you ever heard of Stuxnet? This was some sort of digital virus allegedly designed by the US and Israeli governments and targeted at Iranian nuclear enrichment equipment. What it did was to embed itself in the Iranian computers that were controlling the enrichment, and essentially stop them working properly. As far as we know, nobody got hurt, and as far as we know, it delayed Iranian uranium enrichment long enough that now negotiations have persuaded Iran not to make the bomb. (No discussion will be entered into as to whether they were going to, or whether they will anyway.)

So, why do I think this was a prime example of stupidity? The problem is, once the virus is embedded, the code is available at the other end. What you have done is to show the guys you are trying to hurt, and who want to hurt you back, how to do it, and to give them example code to take bits from to build up their retaliation.

There was an interesting article in the August, 2015, edition of Chemistry World. According to it, cybercrime is estimated to cost the UK £27 billion every year. My guess is, it will be worse in the US, if for no other reason both the population and the economy are bigger. But that is just ordinary crime; what Stuxnet opened the door to was cyber terrorism. The same article noted that the US had 41 cyber attacks on industrial installations in 2010, and 245 in 2014. So far, these attacks have been largely criminal in nature, and as such, reasonably harmless to everyone not directly involved. Criminals want money, so they steal.

Terrorists are a different problem. Now, in many companies, this will not matter. If a mechanical assembly plant goes wrong, it is a nuisance. You may even injure the odd worker, but consider what happens in a chemical plant. These are very sophisticated, and they often operate at either high pressure or higher temperatures, and control is exercised by ensuring that the feed is at exactly the correct rate to maintain the reaction conditions and to control the heat. If the heat is not controlled properly, reactions accelerate, and in some cases, could explode, or cause a major fire. The recent accident in China is probably at the very largest scale of what could go wrong, but even if an oil refinery caught fire and did not explode, it would be virtually impossible to put out and evacuation of nearby people would be the best thing to do. If a major chemical plant does explode, the damage could be quite horrendous and there will be no time to evacuate.

How hard would it be? Well, every major chemical plant (or nuclear power station) will have computer control, and invariably they will be hooked up to the web so that the conditions can be accessed remotely. An important problem is the controlling system will be intended to operate for well over a decade, and since the process is continuous, it is very difficult to update software. It may take up to a week to turn off a chemical plant, to let it cool down in a controlled fashion (and the same to get it started again). If the temperature changes are not carefully controlled, the equipment may be damaged irreversibly. Carelessness at the control panel can do what ordinary terrorists never could. Look at Fukushima. And even if you get it right, there will probably be a huge mess to clean up. Now, imagine what deliberate loss of control could do.

So now, what do you think of driverless cars? The terrorists’ prime piece of equipment. No need to even persuade the driver to commit suicide! I started my novel Puppeteer with the premise that in the future, terrorists could hack into the controls of cruise missiles and turn them around to serve their purposes. At the time I thought it would take to 2030 to learn to do that. I suspect the time required may have been grossly underestimated.

Now, a couple of personal things. I did another interview toexplain myself, and it can be found at:

Finally, starting August 20, I am having a Kindle Countdown discount on my novel A Face On Cydonia. This is the first of a trilogy, and I shall discount the other two volumes in sequence. A Face On Cydonia gives an account of a quest to make contact with aliens, and to show why aliens would not want to contact us, even if they knew about us, but that is only part of the purpose of the trilogy. The trilogy is really about how a young man who has ambition far in excess of his ability can slide into evil, and how combating evil takes much more than the desire to do good. It is also shows a proposed new form of government that superficially seems so desirable, but ends up deeply flawed because the people who gain power through it are deeply flawed.


2 thoughts on “Remote control – the digital virus

  1. Interesting interview; thanks for the link. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite books too, but I prefer Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to War and Peace. I know I read Wyndham in school, but have forgotten which book or books, unfortunately. I remember enjoying it/them, however.

  2. The question said I and to choose one ooh from each author, but I also very much liked Anna Karenina, and the choice between the two was somewhat arbitrary. Thanks for the comment, and the interest.

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