Stuxnet v2.0

Modern warfare looks nothing like the industrial-age warfare of World War II. I covered this in The Laptop Luftwaffe, a post I wrote comparing the sabotage of the Iranian nuclear programme ten years ago with the sabotage of the Nazi atom bomb project in the 1940s.

Iran’s nuclear programme isn’t the only cyber-warfare target. The country’s missile programme is also a target.[1] This week President Trump posted a tweet taunting Iran for a missile launch failure.[2] The tweet included a detailed photograph of the damaged launch pad taken from a highly classified Keyhole-11 spy satellite.[3]

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This attack on the Iranian ballistic missile programme invites the same sort of comparisons as the sabotage of the nuclear programme.

The world’s first ballistic missile was Nazi Germany’s A-4/V-2 rocket programme, run from the research station at Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast.

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The first V-2 to hit London arrived without warning on the 8th September 1944, killing three people in Chiswick.[4] The second hit a minute later, twenty-five miles away outside Epping. The raids continued for seven months.

There would have a been many more attacks and many more deaths had it not been for a massive raid on the Peenemünde works on the night of the 17th August 1943. The rocket works was considered such an important target that Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris committed a massive force of nearly six hundred bombers to a dangerous moonlit raid. Forty bombers were lost that night – shot down or crashed – and 245 crew were killed. On the ground, many were killed, including five hundred foreign prisoners working as forced labour.

The raid was judged as success, setting back the Nazi missile programme by months, saving unknown lives in London and, later, in newly liberated parts of France and the Netherlands. The setbacks also ensured that the missiles weren’t ready at the time of the D-Day Normandy landings.

That success came with a heavy loss of life, both in Allied air crew and people on the ground. It’s obvious why the option of a cyber-attack, now that it exists, is preferable.

As I’ve said previously:[5]

The ghostly stealth of a self-replicating software worm could not be more different to the noise, smoke, and violence of an air raid and yet, six decades apart, the results were similar. What used to take an air force is now silent, invisible, and fits in your pocket.

References

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/us/politics/iran-missile-launch-failures.html
[2] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1167493371973255170
[3] https://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2019/09/image-from-trump-tweet-identified-as.html
[4] (Middlebrook, 1982)
[5] https://darnton.co.nz/2019/06/09/the-laptop-luftwaffe/

Bibliography

Middlebrook, M. (1982). The Peenemünde Raid. London: Allen Lane.

Who Let the Underdogs Out?

Before social media professionals grabbed control of the United States and gnawed at the foundations of the European Union with their pervasive tracking, personality profiling, and hyper-targeted ads, came a bunch of amateurs who had no idea what they were doing. I know this because I was one of them.

In 2006, an opportunity to hack away at the establishment presented itself and I took it. If Trump was a magnitude-eight quake that tore a rift through the political world, ten years earlier I was a tiny foreshock. The sort of thing that a political geologist might have recognised but that to everyone else was an inconsequential bump. It wasn’t much, but this early social media campaign had far more impact than all my previous late-night attempts at proving people wrong on the Internet.

I was leader of the Libertarianz, a tiny political party in New Zealand, which, to date, had achieved pretty close to nothing. We held a position that about 2% of the New Zealand population agreed with and, of those 2%, 1.95% didn’t want to vote for someone who wasn’t going to win. I lived in Lower Hutt but stood for Parliament in Wellington Central, which meant I couldn’t even vote for myself.

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Continue reading “Who Let the Underdogs Out?”

Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?

A Real Space Race

Exploration has always been motivated by the desire to get our hands on more resources. The recent anniversary of the Apollo programme reminded us that exploration for its own sake is a dead end. We haven’t been back to the moon in 50 years.

If we want space exploration to continue, there needs to be a reward at the end. Asteroid mining will be worth trillions and show us what a real space race looks like.

It will also teach us some lessons about economics.

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Continue reading “Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?”

An Air Force in Your Pocket

The age of the self-bombing factory is here. Information age warfare looks as different to an industrial age bombing campaign as telecommuting does to a Chevy Impala.

In 1942, the Allies were desperate to prevent Nazi Germany from developing an atomic bomb. Thirty British Royal Engineers were given the job of sabotaging the heavy water plant in Vemork, in Norway. They were flown from Scotland across the Norwegian Sea in gliders towed behind Halifax bombers. Bad weather and equipment failures meant that both gliders and one of the bombers crashed, killing eleven crew and seven engineers. The remaining 23 engineers were captured, tortured, and shot by the occupying troops.

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Continue reading “An Air Force in Your Pocket”

Height Speech

SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on Friday afternoon (Thursday night in the US), with the initial deployment an hour later over the Southern Ocean. You can’t quite see my house from there.

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I’ve been watching SpaceX launches for years because, after decades of industry stagnation, they’ve made spaceflight exciting again. Partly it’s cool engineering but, as important, it’s economics. Making spacecraft reusable could slash costs and when prices crash interesting things happen. One of those interesting things is Starlink.

Continue reading “Height Speech”

Inhuman Resources: Recruiting for Terror

We have better tools than ever to start a race war. The power of the rifle that Brenton Tarrant brought to two Christchurch mosques in March was greatly magnified by the Go Pro strapped to its barrel and an easy-to-use video streaming platform.

The same tools that have made it possible for small-time entrepreneurs to take on big brands have made it possible for small-time terrorists to steer global events.

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There are practical reasons for restricting terrorist propaganda, but we need to make sure we don’t do more harm than good.

Continue reading “Inhuman Resources: Recruiting for Terror”

Many-to-many Propaganda

Politics as We Know It Is Doomed

Politics as we know it is doomed and the democratisation of propaganda is to blame.

Politics has been dominated by large “broad church” political parties for a century or more. Most democracies have evolved into a left-right duopoly. Conservative vs Labour, Republican vs Democrat. Nationalists, socialists, and greens, cling onto the sides.

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But this system is doomed. Large political parties that appeal to broad swathes of the population were a product of broadcast media. Branded political parties manufactured packages of beliefs and left- or right-leaning newspapers and television stations broadcast them to the mass market.

The advent of social media has broken apart the media business. The branding power is gone. The broadcast channels are gone. The mass market is no longer massed. Political parties are adapted to an environment that no longer exists. They will go extinct.

Continue reading “Many-to-many Propaganda”

The Medieval Hiroshima

The Castello di Monte San Giovanni Campano, just outside Naples, is the medieval Hiroshima. It was destroyed in February 1495 by a powerful new weapon. The world was changed forever.

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A dispute over the succession to the throne of Naples, stoked by Pope Innocent VIII, led to the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII of France. His army, at 25,000 men, was large but not unlike many other medieval armies – except for one thing. His siege train included forty heavy bronze cannon, powered by gunpowder.

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Happy Cosmonautics Day

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. At 06:07 UTC a Vostok rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what’s now Kazakhstan and lifted the 27-year-old Soviet air force pilot into orbit and into history.

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The launch fixed the Soviet Union’s place at the head of the Space Race, when spaceflight marked the leading edge of superpower technology.

Spaceflight is no longer a superpower monopoly. Today, 58 years later, the Space Race is led by SpaceX, one of many private companies opening up spaceflight.

This morning (NZ time), an Israeli non-profit organisation came painfully close to landing the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon. The probe was launched in February this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It got within a few hundred metres of the moon’s surface before its main engine failed and it was unable to slow its descent enough to land softly.

Three hours later, SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, carrying a Saudi Communications satellite. The satellite was nothing out of the ordinary, but the Falcon Heavy’s centre core and both side boosters, made near simultaneous landings and will be used again. Not only is this an extraordinary technical feat that puts traditional launch providers to shame but it will transform the economics of spaceflight.

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After decades of stagnation, spaceflight is exciting again!