In 2007, I had the privilege of spreading democracy by participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was a corporal that was lucky enough to get pulled into Marine Corps Reconnaissance. My team of Marines was responsible for managing the tactical networking and communications for the battalion at Camp Lejeune, Twentynine Palms, Fallujah, and wherever the mission took us.
During our deployments, we fulfilled various objectives, including counterinsurgency operations, search and seizure operations, and intelligence gathering. Being part of such an incredible mission gave me a unique insight into the power this military branch truly possesses in facilitating change at an international level.
Working with special operations units was challenging and rewarding. We often found ourselves in dangerous situations. We were regularly engaged in firefights and had to defend ourselves against improvised explosive devices. However, it wasn't just the physical danger that posed a threat to us. We were also vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which could have caused major disruptions to our operations.
My Experience with Stuxnet
In the field, I was responsible for maintaining our collection of ToughBook laptops. These ruggedized devices were essential as they provided us with a way to collect information and search out potential targets while operating in remote and hazardous locations.
Security was always taken seriously, so we ensured that all Windows-based computers ran antivirus software and were reimaged before each deployment. This gave us peace of mind that the sensitive data gathered was not going to be compromised by malicious actors located nearby.
As we went through pre-deployment training, we were surprised to find a mysterious file had infiltrated our computers. Only years later would we discover that the persistent USB-spreading worm we uncovered was the sophisticated computer worm known as Stuxnet, the first cyberweapon designed to seek out and degrade Iran’s nuclear program.
What Stuxnet Did
Stuxnet was a sophisticated piece of code. It was designed to exploit a vulnerability in the Windows operating system, which allowed it to spread via USB drives. It also targeted industrial control systems and was programmed to manipulate them, potentially causing disruption.
Stuxnet was a malicious computer worm that targeted industrial control systems. It followed a four-step process:
- The virus was spread via a USB drive.
- The virus then spreads via the network and infected computers.
- It then attacked the industrial control systems of the target.
- It was programmed to manipulate the system, potentially causing disruption.
Other Marines have faced a unique challenge in attempting to combat this virus. Our pre-deployment training often takes place in tactical environments that don't lend themselves naturally to implementing robust security protocols. To ensure that it did not spread to other computers, we decided upon a solution of re-imaging our machines with an operating system that included a manual patch that had to be applied by hand. This allowed us to deploy despite difficult conditions safely and ensured Marines could continue the mission without disruption or danger of the virus further proliferating.
Although my unit was not affected by Stuxnet (or any other cyberattack, for that matter), the DoD was starting to learn about cyber-attacks and, in 2008, banned the use of USB drivers from all its military computers, even though this virus had already been used to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities some years prior. It was a crucial learning experience that has served as an example for other organizations by showing us how devastating cyber-attacks can be.
A worthy takeaway is the reason we were successful in fighting off the USB worm, Stuxnet, was due to the pre-deployment training. This included re-imaging the computers and manually patching them to ensure they were safe from the virus.
This shows that proper preparation is necessary to fight against cyber-attacks and protect your data. It also reinforces the need for continual training and education about cybersecurity, especially in today’s fast-changing digital world.
My experience with Stuxnet, along with the other activities I was involved in during my deployment, has taught me the power of the military and how it can be used to protect, defend, and spread democracy. It also showed me how important it is to stay vigilant and up-to-date on cyber threats and attack vectors.
I highly recommend this video on Stuxnet for anyone interested in learning more about it:
I learned that it is essential to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to cybersecurity and never to underestimate the power of malicious actors. The importance of training, education, and preparation cannot be overstated.