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US Department of Defense Tactical Electromagnetic Cyber Warfare: Plant Malware Through the Air

January 18, 2013
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Source: Defense News

It was right around that time that scientists began to turn their attention to another project: trying to access these protected networks remotely, through the air, by reading activity via electromagnetic field distortions and inserting code via radio frequencies. Accessing these networks — networks that don’t have wireless routers and aren’t connected to the Internet — became something of a holy grail, dubbed “jumping the gap.”

The science has progressed significantly, and now the Army is looking at demonstrating technology that can be deployed on aircraft and ground vehicles that can wage this kind of cyber warfare.

Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz may have had one of the most secure computer systems in the world. The building housing the nuclear program’s equipment is underground, protected by a combination of concrete walls, earth and military guards.

And it was a “closed” network, sealed off from the Internet and unsusceptible to vulnerabilities in the system’s Windows-based software.

All those precautions, however, didn’t stop the Stuxnet worm from infecting the system, disrupting the delicate balance of uranium-enriching centrifuges and rendering them useless. Stuxnet, part of a broader U.S./Israeli cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program called “Olympic Games,” was carried in on a small flash drive. Someone, either a spy or an unwitting accomplice, plugged it into a USB port on a computer inside the complex and let loose into the “secure” Iranian system the most devastating cyber weapon ever known.

Without smuggling that cyber weapon physically into the plant, the operation never would have worked, which underscores the problem: No matter how high-tech the cyber tool, the glaring weak link has been the ability to reach out and touch a system. A breach of physical security was required, either secretly getting hold of an employee’s thumb drive and infecting it, or working with someone on the inside to covertly plug the device into the network.

With thumb drives now a known vulnerability, most countries have banned their use on sensitive systems. Iran forbade them at Natanz shortly after the Stuxnet worm began to work its magic; the Pentagon banned their use in 2008.

It was right around that time that scientists began to turn their attention to another project: trying to access these protected networks remotely, through the air, by reading activity via electromagnetic field distortions and inserting code via radio frequencies. Accessing these networks — networks that don’t have wireless routers and aren’t connected to the Internet — became something of a holy grail, dubbed “jumping the gap.”

The science has progressed significantly, and now the Army is looking at demonstrating technology that can be deployed on aircraft and ground vehicles that can wage this kind of cyber warfare.

The Army’s Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate, known as I2WD, hosted a classified planning day Nov. 28. Representatives from 60 companies and labs attended to discuss what can be done in the realm of electronic warfare and cyber, according to a source familiar with the program.

The roughly half-dozen objectives of the Tactical Electromagnetic Cyber Warfare Demonstrator program are classified. (The TECWD program is pronounced “techwood” by participants.) The source said the program is designed to demonstrate ready-made systems, dubbed “boxes,” that can perform a variety of tasks. Some are somewhat typical fare, like systems aimed at the improvised explosive device threat.

But among the objectives are these: inserting and extracting data from sealed, wired networks. The possibilities are remarkable. Imagine being able to roll a vehicle near a facility, sit for a short period while inserting a worm, and leave without having to buy off any employee or sneak anything past an attentive guard. Better yet, a stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle could be quietly flown far above a facility to insert code even in contested airspace. With that kind of tactical deployment, cyber could become a critical part of a wide variety of operations, as localized effects could be integrated with kinetic activities.

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