The media is abuzz with stories about Stuxnet, a piece of malware that many allege the United States and Israel created to damage or destroy Iranian centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Some stories have called Stuxnet the first time a computer worm has been used to cause physical damage.
That may well be technically true, but using “malware” to cause damage is, well, totally 80s. The first reported use of “malware” to cause physical damage happened at the height of the Cold War–and it happened because of intelligence gathered from one of the most interesting, and most important, spies of all time: Farewell. Not only was it based on intelligence gathered in from perhaps the most famous spy in Cold War history, it was also spectacularly successful. The damage caused resulted in the largest non-nuclear explosion (at least at the time) ever observed from space.
In the early 1980s, the United States via its French allies gained a high-level source within the KGB, code named Farewell. The entire story is recounted in fascinating detail in Sergei Kostin & Eric Raynaud’s book “Farewell, The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century” (Amazon Crossing 2011), but to sum it up–Farewell was Colonel Vladimir Ippolitovich Vetrov, a high ranking officer in the KGB’s “Directorate T,” which was tasked with collecting and using technological and scientific evidence gained from the west.
When Vetrov became disillusioned with communism, he approached the French, which in turn, began feeding intelligence to the CIA. Vetrov’s intelligence demonstrated that the KGB’s Directorate T was doing a superlative job at collecting information–so much so that, as Matthew French put it in his 2004 article for Federal Computer Week, “the Pentagon had been in an arms race with itself.”
Armed with that knowledge, Dr. Gus Weiss, a foreign affairs officer on the National Security Council, set in motion a highly-secret plan to feed the Soviets bad intelligence–adding “extra ingredients” to the software and hardware the KGB was obtaining. These “extra ingredients” were Trojan horses and 1980s precursors to malware: programs designed to pass Soviet quality tests, but then later fail and cause physical damage–just like Stuxnet.
As far as we know, these programs were even more effective than Stuxnet. In addition to infecting numerous Soviet programs with malware and severely impeding their ability to keep pace with American advancements, software used to control a natural gas pipeline the CIA leaked to the Soviets caused the largest non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space. Like Stuxnet, the leaked software that caused the explosion was designed to overload the Soviet natural gas pipeline a certain time after being installed and passing safety checks.
Using a computer “worm” like Stuxnet may (or may not) be a new wrinkle, but using viruses and Trojan horses has been a part of US Military operations for over 30 years, and if history is any guide, the Military is, and has been, really good at it.
For an excellent and thorough recounting of these events, Kostin’s Farewell book is perhaps the most comprehensive and entertaining source, and for a shorter (but also excellent) version of the same events, check out: Matthew French, Tech sabotage during the Cold War, April 26, 2004 (Federal Computer Week) available at http://fcw.com/Articles/2004/04/26/Tech-sabotage-during-the-Cold-War.aspx .