Until the recent admission by Iran of a successful cyber attack on its nuclear power plant facilities, cyber warfare had not made serious inroads into the collective consciousness. The recent developments in Iran, however, have pointed out flaws in certain Siemens developed software applications that were designed to govern and control sophisticated industrial processes, flaws that have led not only to the infection of the powerful computers running those programs,but which have already infected personal computers as well.
The Stuxnet virus is a worm, or malware, designed to exploit certain vulnerabilities in industrial control systems manufactured by the German electronics giant, Siemens AG. This malware uploads its own code and takes over the programmable logic controllers that are used to control the automation of processes, and is feared to reside within these systems even after its supposed eradication. These worms may be sending a continuous stream of data to outsiders, or may hide until ordered to commandeer a system and perform tasks that sabotage its original intended purpose. They may not only cause the target's self-destruction, but actually reprogram them to perform tasks unsuited to the original purpose to more subtly damage the end result in ways more difficult to determine and correct.
The attack on Iran, it is felt by experts in the field, is most likely being conducted by a state actor, with the United States and Israel being the prime suspects, working either singly or in concert. Hossein Salami, the Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, says the "Stuxnet spy worm has been created in line with the West's electronic warfare against Iran". Another high ranking Iranian was quoted as saying that the Stuxnet was no normal worm and that it is "mutating and wreaking further havoc on computerized industrial equipment" and continues to spread. Some 30,000 industrial computers have been infected in Iran, and as many as 3000 centrifuges idled.
Israel has made cyber warfare one of its major pillars of strategic planning, and it's easy to see why they would do this. By avoiding air strikes and maintaining deniability, they can neuter Iran's nuclear threat, avoid the costs of an all out war, minimize or eliminate the deaths of many civilians on both sides of the struggle, and remove the incentive to isolate and excoriate her every time an attempt is made to defend herself in a dangerous world.
If cyber warfare can neutralize vast portions of the modern world's energy and power producing entities, that's one more dangerous and provocative innovation we have to worry about and contend with in the weeks and months ahead.