Sunday, March 13, 2011

Extraordinary virus

In Israel, they breed 'em tough and smart. Alongside a hardy Sabra (Hebrew name of the Prickly Pear, used to designate Jews born in Israeli territory), even our legendary Queenslanders [display] can look like delicate choirboys. Take this fellow, for example:

His name is Gabi Ashkenazi, 57 years old, and he grew up in the agricultural settlement (moshav) of Hagor, on the inland edge of the Biblical plain of Sharon which extends from Tel Aviv up to Haifa, not far from Netanya. Since 2007, and up until a fortnight ago, Ashkenazi was the chief of Tsahal (Israel's defense forces).

When I dare to suggest that such a man is tough, I don't mean in a ruthless sense, like the disappearing dictators of the Mediterranean. Like many of Israel's great leaders, he has the mental toughness of a determined survivor. Ashkenazi appears to be endowed with intelligence and imagination, as well. And exceptional computer know-how.

It was only last summer, in July 2010, that the world first heard of a Windows computer worm called Stuxnet (which happens to be a meaningless name). Surprisingly, it didn't get into action in many countries. A month later, a few thousand cases had been detected in India, the USA and Australia, and twice that volume in Indonesia. But one victim, Iran, had affliction figures that were already measured in tens of thousands. Clearly, the worm was equipped with some kind of road map that encouraged it to attack Persia, above all.

And what did this software worm actually do? That's where the story becomes utterly amazing. Most folk imagine that computers linked to the Internet are used primarily to broadcast subtle and profound messages to the universe: Hey, you, gonna be my friend? But they can do much more than that. Many computers drive machines. So, if you can exploit the Internet to inject a worm into such computers, you can easily screw up the machines they're supposed to control. You only have to get a machine to operate, say, on fluctuating voltages, and it soon starts to cough and hiccup, and finally do certain crazy things. Sooner or later, because of such a worm (inside an Iranian factory, for example), everything can be forced to shut down. Well, I can't say much more about such technology, because I'm not smart enough to understand it. But it impresses me. There's nothing nicer than the idea of a worm in the works of an otherwise clever but obnoxious device.

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