How Cyberwarfare Actually Works
The world’s new era of warfare started here: on the eighth floor of an innocuous office building in Minsk, Belarus. A small antivirus developer based within these walls, VirusBlokAda, received an inbound help request. Their client in Iran was experiencing random, repeated reboots of their industrial control computers. It was probably a bug, they thought—a misconfiguration of Windows, or an issue of two programs not playing nice with each other. So, they reinstalled Windows. But the issue remained.
This upped the stakes. This wasn’t some mistake in Window’s programing. This was something purposefully malicious. Soon, Sergey Ulasen, the company’s researcher, found some suspicious files on the errant machine.
As he combed through their code, he made a discovery—a discovery that shook the world of information security to its core. This code, when placed on a USB drive and plugged into a computer, could silently launch and execute a program simply by being viewed. This was a brand new exploit—a catastrophically capable exploit.
All it took was one drive, simply plugged in, to infect one computer. This method of spread was mortifyingly efficient—it was something out of a movie. Recognizing that, the intuitive question was how far it had spread. The answer was chilling: 58%—58% of devices in Iran were infected with this malicious code. 58% of the country’s computers were within the grips of some mystery developer so capable that they had identified an exploit of existential proportions. And what made this ominous envelopment all that much more intimidating was that nobody knew what this code was intended to do.
Nobody knew why a high-skilled hacker had spread a groundbreaking worm to 58% of Iran’s computers. But what became clear far quicker is that VirusBlokAda’s discovery did not gain prominence for the virus itself. It gained prominence because this small Belarusian antivirus company had discovered that the world had entered a new era.
The world had entered the era of highly-advanced, highly-targeted, and highly-capable cyberwarfare. This new era was made possible—and perhaps more importantly, made profitable—by one, single concept: the zero-day. You see, in decades past, national intelligence agencies and nefarious independent operatives focused on gathering information in transit. Rather than sneaking into the embassy, you intercepted the courier; rather than placing a bug in the phone, you tapped the transmission line. It was simply easier to capture information on the move than at its origin or destination. As the digital age awoke, this MO continued, but then the manufacturers caught up.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others all started encrypting data as soon as it left devices. Shielding information behind complex mathematical systems, encryption, by this time, was, for all practical purposes, perfect. Therefore, the strategies behind digital espionage had to change—the snoops needed a new way to get in. While the math behind encryption may be infallible, people are not. The devices on which data is created and stored—phones, computers, servers, and more—are created by people. Therefore, the devices have holes.
These holes are referred to as zero-days. Any software has vulnerabilities. Most will be caught before release; some will be caught shortly after and quickly addressed with a patch; but a tiny minority will go unnoticed for weeks, months, or years. In the early 2000s, hobbyist hackers spent their evenings scrolling through code looking for these bugs.
Faced with hostility and legal threats when reporting vulnerabilities straight to its software’s developers, many would post about their findings on online forums—earning little else than bragging rights. Early information security companies would repackage this information and include it in a digital threat alert service for companies and agencies—notifying them when their software might have holes not yet fixed by the developer. One such company, iDefense, found itself faltering in 2002 as they were selling the same information, at the same time, to the same customer base—they simply had zero competitive advantage. So they created one. They decided to start paying for exploits—hackers would come to them with a bug and, in exchange for their silence, iDefense would pay anywhere between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dollars. iDefense would then alert the software’s developer and its own customers before the competing information security companies could.
With the information staying among more trusted hands, this also lowered the likelihood of a vulnerability being used for nefarious reasons. iDefense had created an ethical, profitable system that gave hackers a first opportunity to monetize their hobby, and so it was no surprise that it grew into a massive success. In mere months, the company went from weeks behind on payroll to a pioneer in the industry.
But then the calls started coming. And the area codes were local. The Chantilly, Virginia based company was fielding enquiries from around the DC beltway—government contractors wanted to buy their exploits. For the zero-days that iDefense had paid three or four figures for, the callers were willing to pay six—as long as the company stayed quiet; as long as the buyer stayed the only one with knowledge of the zero-day. iDefense said no, but they soon found themselves priced out of the very market they had created. Whereas their payouts might fund a vacation, the black-market bounties paid for sportscars—they simply couldn’t compete.
On the other side of the equation, the American military machine had recognized the astonishing potential rising out of a single software susceptibility. Unperturbed by borders, rules of engagement, or mortality, cyberwarfare had the potential to silently achieve America’s strategic goals so long as they, and only they, knew about these zero-days. In the years since, the market has propagated into a staggering degree of scale and legitimacy. While a thriving black and gray market still exists—especially for sales to countries with concerning human rights records—Western players like the US source the zero-day exploits upon which they build their cyberweapons from companies that hardly hide what they’re doing. In the most extreme example, zero-day broker Zerodium publishes their price list. For an exploit capable of running a piece of code on a device or network without user interaction—remote code execution, as it’s known—the company is willing to pay up to $10,000 on router software.
For the same capability, they’ll pay up to $100,000 on Wordpress, and up to $1,000,000 for Windows. Zerodium is even offering a temporary higher $400,000 bounty for a remote code execution zero-day on Microsoft Outlook—possibly indicating that someone somewhere desperately needs that very exploit for a cyberweapon under development. Remote code execution exploits are the holy grail of zero-days. Properly used, they can allow virtually unfettered access to another’s machine.
Of course, zero-days become worthless essentially the instant they are discovered—nowadays, software developers will quickly patch the exploits upon notification. Therefore, the fact that this malicious code, quickly dubbed Stuxnet, included a remote code execution exploit that could have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars indicated that it was designed to do something equally valuable. However, it soon became clear that the .lnk exploit did not stand alone. Layered on top of it was another remote code execution exploit.
Stuxnet was designed to embed itself into the file that communicates metadata to printers on a local network, however, with this zero-day, that file would end up on all the other computers on that local network—silently and quickly spreading from a single machine to an entire office, university, factory, or other facility. Then, to complete the spread, the code used two escalation-of-privilege zero-days—each for different versions of the operating system—allowing it, when installed on a single user account, to gain access to an entire machine. Four zero-days—four exploits each worth life-changing amounts of money: this was, in the most literal sense, an unprecedented scale of hacking device. Never before had a piece of code so expertly intertwined four unknown exploits. Whoever was behind this had exhausted enormous resources onto this single, one-megabyte piece of code, but even as it was being combed through by VirusBlokAda, even as it set the information security industry ablaze, even as it propagated from machine to machine in Iran and beyond, the single most important question remained unanswered: what was Stuxnet designed to do? This is the Natanz nuclear facility, and while neither Iranian officials nor anyone in global information security knew it, by the middle of 2010, the complex had become ground zero for the implementation of the most advanced cyberweapon the world had ever seen. Hours away from Tehran by car, sitting on the border of the nation’s central desert, in the shadow of Karkas mountains, this uranium enrichment facility is purposefully geographically isolated.
Its geographic isolation, however, pales in comparison to its digital isolation. Natanz, in response to an earlier, more rudimentary cyberattack, wasn’t even connected to the internet, as Iran had air-gapped the facility to protect important and notoriously fickle centrifuges from outside mettling. For the outside to mettle then, a worm had to be planted manually. At some point in 2009, an unknowing employee at the plant, a spy, or a mole plugged a contaminated USB stick into a PC running Microsoft Windows.
Getting the malware past the air gap, however, only marked the beginning. First, using the .lnk zero-day, the worm jumped from USB to computer without detection. Then, using the printer zero-day vulnerability, the worm gained access to the facility’s local network, and spread across the entire enrichment plant. Undetected, and inside the Natanz network, the malicious code still held on to its payload—continuing its search for a very particular target as it went. Conceptually, cyber weapons are rather straightforward.
Like most of their physical counterparts, these weapons consist of two primary components: the carrier, and the payload. In other words, no matter the level of complexity, every cyberweapon is comprised of code that gains it access into a computer or network, and code that informs what the weapon does once it’s inside. At this stage, the carrier had so far succeeded: Stuxnet had access to any and all things going on here, throughout the administrative and monitoring areas of the facility—effectively, the enrichment process’ surrounding infrastructure. The code’s payload, and by extension, the malware’s authors, however, weren’t interested in crashing the plant’s communication networks or delivering a one-off denial of service. Instead they worked toward something more tangible and long-lasting.
What the code wanted access to was buried underground here: where actual, physical centrifuges were using centrifugal force to tear away unwanted isotopes and create uranium-235. Running these centrifuges, though, weren’t PCs but programmable logic controllers—industrial control equipment that provided yet another hurdle for the malware. Finally, using stolen security certificates then zero-day vulnerabilities identified in Siemens’s software—a German manufacturer whose PLCs controlled 164 of the Iranian centrifuges each—the carrier had reached its target, completed its mission, and released its payload.
Among the many genius, and frightening potentials highlighted by this nefarious code, one troubling aspect lies not in what it did, but what it intended not to do. For days after gaining access to the PLCs controlling the Iranian centrifuges, the very core of the nation’s nuclear program, the payload did nothing but monitor the machines’s RPMs. Then, after nearly two weeks, the code would briefly speed the centrifuges up to 1,400 hertz—well beyond their normal operating range of between 800 and 1100. Weeks after that, the code would momentarily slow them down to two hertz, leading to increased wear and tear, and thus failure. All the while, as the machines self-destructed at a slightly above-average rate, the worm reported to monitors that the centrifuges were running at average RPMs, that there was nothing here to see.
Essentially, had it not managed to unintentionally escape the facility, Stuxnet could have potentially continued to cripple Iran’s nuclear ambitions from within for years, perhaps even decades, before detection. Therefore, prior to June of 2010, the piece of code was simultaneously invisible and physically destructive—a cyberweapon experts couldn’t identify, but one that was destroying hundreds upon hundreds of strategically invaluable Iranian centrifuges. It’s been more than a decade since Stuxnet was first identified. Still, no one has officially claimed responsibility for this first-of-its-kind weapon. The code’s scale, though—its sheer size and complexity—has created a consensus that this couldn’t be the work of one person.
While the world’s most powerful hackers are lucky to get their hands on a single zero-day, Stuxnet employed a staggering four. Nor could this be the work of a group of hacktivists, or even a minor nation-state, either. At a megabyte, Stuxnet was orders of magnitude larger than any malware discovered before it. And it wasn’t just massive, either; it was incredibly precise—laying dormant in computers across the globe and only weaponizing its devious payload when connected to Siemens Step 7 software linked to a PLC running exactly 164 centrifuges. Such size signaled that this was a weapon designed across years, while such clinical precision signaled the code was crafted with potential future lawsuits in mind. In short, just in the worm’s design, experts the world over concluded that it had to be crafted by a major world power, or multiple, with the time and resources to approach such an unprecedented undertaking, and it had to be a world power, or multiple, that wasn't so friendly with Iran.
Information in the actual code and geopolitical context aren’t our only clues as to who was behind this, though. Cybersecurity experts have conducted countless interviews on background and poured over troves of leaked documents since the worm appeared. What they found was that the development of Stuxnet was described as a third option that existed somewhere between doing nothing to slow Iran's nuclear advance and launching airstrikes to destroy the enrichment facilities. As an alternative was how the weapon was first presented to President Bush, then to Israeli officials, then eventually to President Obama—all of whom supported its implementation. What the journalists revealed was that the US and Israel had ushered the world into a new era of state-led cyber offensives that wreaked physical destruction.
Before this point, nation-states—the US through the NSA, and Israel through its Unit 8200—used cyber divisions to defend and surveil. Now they were going on the offensive. By crossing the Rubicon, though, and getting caught, the actions of the US and Israel have opened Pandora’s box. Though Iran denied involvement, in 2013, major American banks were hit with a concerted attack.
American intelligence identified it as retaliation by Iran and a worrying lesson as to how quickly the rival's cyber capabilities were expanding. Holding up American banks in 2013, however, only marked the beginning. Since the US unleashed Stuxnet, other nation states have worked to close the cyberweapon gap—many of which the US has, at best, a tenuous relationship with. North Korea, largely through its state-backed hacker organization, the Lazarus Group, was able to infiltrate Sony Pictures in 2014, then, in 2017, the country’s Wannacry ransomware forced the UK’s National Health Service to work off of pen and paper.
Every year, China’s cyberwarfare division grows stronger from the talent scouted and zero-days identified at the Tianfu Cup—where competitive hackers tear into Google, Microsoft, and Apple software. In 2017, Russian cyberattacks brought Ukrainian banks, utilities, and government agencies to their knees. In 2021, ransomware software locked up the US’s Colonial Pipeline.
Increasing the speed at which the rest of the world catches up to the US is the fact that American weapons are spreading. The United States has long been considered a leader, if not the leader, in cyberwarfare, but a 2017 leak by a hacker group known as The Shadow Brokers unleashed the American NSA’s hacking tools for the entire world to use. Today, experts have reached a concerning consensus: the capability for catastrophic cyberwarfare exists more acutely now than at any point before—changing the very landscape for current and future conflicts. Traditional weapons have consequences for the aggressors. If Russia were to deploy a nuclear weapon, mutually assured destruction would dictate a swift response by the target nation.
Cyberweapons are different. It took years for major media organizations to start pointing towards the US and Israel as the forces behind Stuxnet—and much of the proof came from tacit acknowledgement by American and Israeli government officials themselves. When the stakes get raised, so will the secrecy. Cyberwarfare has the potential for destruction without consequences. In this new battlefield, there are no rules of engagement, there are no Geneva conventions—there are simply cutting-edge aggressors and vulnerable targets who have not yet realized the doors they’ve left open.
Experts believe that today represents a waiting period. The weapons exist, they’ve been developed, and they could even be out there already, embedded in the world’s machines, laying dormant until the time comes for them to unleash their destructive potential. But by and large, that time has not yet come.
Faced with the reality that each individual weapon can only be used once until vulnerabilities are patched, the nation-states and organizations behind these have yet to find the will to unleash a truly devastating attack on a major nation—an attack that will wake the world up to the truly existential nature of this new battlefield. But that time is coming—the big one’s coming. Wars will no longer be fought in far-off lands that can be ignored simply by turning off the TV. They will be fought in the technology that has come to envelop every moment of modern life. The US and Iran have had an incredibly tense relationship for the better part of the last century, and the context of what led to Iran’s nuclear program, and therefore what led to the US’ development and deployment of Stuxnet, stretches back into the 1950s.
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