Arik Hesseldahl

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Iran Raised Its Cyberwar Game After Stuxnet, U.S. General Says

After the Stuxnet malware attacks that are thought to have caused several Iranian nuclear centrifuges to explode, Iran has been steadily boosting its ability to carry out attacks against computer networks, and is growing into “a force to be reckoned with.”

That was the warning given by Gen. William Shelton (pictured in a file photo), head of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command, which is also in charge of the Air Force’s cyberwar group, in a speech in Washington, D.C., yesterday, which was covered by Reuters.

Shelton’s warning comes nine days after security experts familiar with the opinion of U.S. government officials told the New York Times that Iran is behind a series of denial-of-service attacks in late 2012 meant to disrupt the normal flow of financial business. Banks affected included Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, J.P. Morgan Chase and PNC.

The attacks were largely seen as a retaliation not only for Stuxnet, but for other malware-based campaigns that are thought to have been targeted against Iran: Flame, which turned computers into sophisticated spying tools, using their built-in video cameras and microphones; and Gauss, which sought to intercept bank account information.

Shelton didn’t speak directly to whether or not Iran has attacked U.S. government networks, but said that its efforts are ongoing.

Shelton referred to the Stuxnet attack in 2010 as the “Natanz situation.” In that instance of sophisticated digital sabotage, as reported by the New York Times, malware targeting Windows burrowed its way into industrial control computers called Programmable Logic Controllers, targeting a specific setup in a specific configuration. The malware then seized control of those systems and cause some centrifuges to spin out of control and ultimately explode, while computer monitors displaying the condition of those centrifuges showed them to be normal. At the time, the damage was thought to have set the Iranian nuclear research program back by about two years.

Shelton says it had another effect: An increase in Iranian resolve to strike its enemies in the cyber realm. “The Iranian situation is difficult to talk about,” Reuters quotes Shelton as saying. “It’s clear that the Natanz situation generated reaction by them. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with, with the potential capabilities that they will develop over the years and the potential threat that will represent to the United States.”

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