Sophisticated viruses will be the workhorses of 21st-century spying. But there should be rules
IF ASKED why they spied on the computers of their rivals (and allies), the authors of Regin, a sophisticated computer virus that seems to have been designed by a Western government, would presumably echo the proverbial bank robber, and reply “because that’s where the secrets are”.
As the world has gone digital, spying has, too. Regin is just the latest in a trend that first came to public notice in 2010, when a piece of American and Israeli software called Stuxnet was revealed to have been responsible for sabotaging part of Iran’s nuclear programme. Since then have come Flame, Red October, DarkHotel and others (see article); more surely lurk undiscovered in the world’s networks. But unlike the indiscriminate surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, these chunks of malware seem, like traditional spying, to be targeted at specific governments or even individuals.
For spies, such digital espionage has advantages over the shoe-leather sort. Computers are stuffed with data that can be copied and beamed around the world in seconds—so much easier than fiddling with microdots or smuggling sensitive documents past guards. The more complicated computer operating systems get, the more riddled they are with unnoticed security holes. Staying safe means plugging them all; an attacker need only keep trying until a single one gives way.
Computer espionage is usefully deniable, too: if programmers are careful it is hard to know who is behind an attack. (There are hints that Regin might be British—not least that one of its modules seems to be called “LEGSPIN”, a cricketing term. British spooks refuse to comment.) And it can be conducted from comfortable armchairs thousands of miles from the target, with no need to put human agents in harm’s way.
But cyber-spying raises two tricky issues.
The Latest on: Computer spying
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