Atomic scientists compare cyberwar to development of nuclear bomb

Cyberbombs are the new atom bombs.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned Friday that the race to build and deploy cyberweapons -- secret programs only recently discovered by security researchers, the extent of which is not yet fully known -- closely resembles the race to build the first nuclear weapons.

“The parallels with the invention and first use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are eerie,” wrote Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project.

Its scientists also keep track of the doomsday clock, which warns of nuclear annihilation.

An expansive New York Times report on June 1 said President Obama was responsible for a ramp-up in cyberattacks on Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, via cyber worms, viruses and digital Trojan horses with esoteric names such as Stuxnet and Flame.

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The 1945 rush to build the atomic bomb was partly a race to beat others, she noted. In modern times, government leaders again are responsible for urging scientists to invent new weapons, the consequences of which are poorly understood. As in the '40s, scientists are warning of the potential dangers, Benedict noted, yet despite those warnings, these weapons are being built and unleashed without warning or discussion.

“This may be another watershed moment, when, as Albert Einstein put it in 1954, ‘everything has changed save our way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe,’" Benedict wrote.

Security analysts speaking with have also characterized Stuxnet, Flame and others as cyberweapons, though most have been hesitant to dissect the geopolitical ramifications.

“Flame is a cyberespionage operation,” Roel Schouwenberg, a senior security researcher with Kaspersky Labs, told in late May.

The Flame virus is sort of a Swiss Army knife spy tool that can evolve and change to deal with any situation that has been discovered on the loose in several Middle Eastern countries, yet it isn’t necessarily a declaration of war, Schouwenberg said.

“It’s very clear that there’s a lot of development in this area," he said. "Every government is allocating more resources to cyberoffense. But can we call it a war? I’m not sure.”

Benedict lumps Stuxnet and its ilk together as part of a new era in “warfare,” though she doesn’t label these actions as “acts of war” either.

But she noted the irony of the first acknowledged military use of cyberwarfare: to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

“A new age of mass destruction will begin in an effort to close a chapter from the first age of mass destruction,” Benedict wrote.