"Cyberweapons Can Create
Massive Collateral Damage."
Very unlikely. When news of Stuxnet broke, the New York Times reported that the most striking aspect of the new weapon was the "collateral damage" it created. The malicious program was "splattered on thousands of computer systems around the world, and much of its impact has been on those systems, rather than on what appears to have been its intended target, Iranian equipment," the Times reported. Such descriptions encouraged the view that computer viruses are akin to highly contagious biological viruses that, once unleashed from the lab, will turn against all vulnerable systems, not just their intended targets.
But this metaphor is deeply flawed. As the destructive potential of a cyberweapon grows, the likelihood that it could do far-reaching damage across many systems shrinks. Stuxnet did infect more than 100,000 computers -- mainly in Iran, Indonesia, and India, though also in Europe and the United States. But it was so specifically programmed that it didn't actually damage those machines, afflicting only Iran's centrifuges at Natanz. The worm's aggressive infection strategy was designed to maximize the likelihood that it would reach its intended target. Because that final target was not networked, "all the functionality required to sabotage a system was embedded directly in the Stuxnet executable," the security software company Symantec observed in its analysis of the worm's code. So yes, Stuxnet was "splattered" far and wide, but it only executed its damaging payload where it was supposed to.
Collateral infection, in short, is not necessarily collateral damage. A sophisticated piece of malware may aggressively infect many systems, but if there is an intended target, the infection will likely have a distinct payload that will be harmless to most computers. Especially in the context of more sophisticated cyberweapons, the image of inadvertent collateral damage doesn't hold up. They're more like a flu virus that only makes one family sick.
RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images