Delegates at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas are sharply split on the merits (or otherwise) of malware like Stuxnet that can be used offensively to take down infrastructure.
Stuxnet was the first malware that was publicly acknowledged to have been designed to take down physical equipment – in this case, Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. According to recent reports it was developed by the US and Israel as part of Operation Olympic Games, a malware program started by former President Bush and expanded by the current administration.
"I think what you're talking about is a moral crime," said Marcus Ranum, faculty member of the Institute for Applied Network Security. "What you're really doing is putting civilian infrastructure on the front line in this non-existent war. The military is basically saying 'we've saved you a little old fashioned bombing - you should be happy,' but that's not appropriate."
Ranum's position brought applause from the audience, but others were less impressed. Black Hat founder Jeff Moss said that he was more supportive of using malware in this way, since it provided military options without the need to endanger human life.
"I've always thought that these were tools in the spectrum of proportional force in between harsh words and dirty looks and Mark II bombs," said Moss. "Now instead of blowing up plants and killing people you can attack the equipment, and this is another notch on the proportionality meter. If you agree with that or not it's a good tool to allow nation states to exert force without having to blow people up."
Ultimately, however, such debate is slightly pointless, F-Secure's top security man, Mikko Hypponen told The Register. The industry should focus instead on practicalities.
"Ultimately the ethics of this don't really matter – the decision has been made and this kind of stuff is going to be unavoidable." ®