Entries Tagged "nuclear weapons"

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Nuclear Self-Terrorization

More fearmongering. The headline is “Terrorists could use internet to launch nuclear attack: report.” The subhead: “The risk of cyber-terrorism escalating to a nuclear strike is growing daily, according to a study.” In the article:

The claims come in a study commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which suggests that under the right circumstances, terrorists could break into computer systems and launch an attack on a nuclear state ­ triggering a catastrophic chain of events that would have a global impact.

Without better protection of computer and information systems, the paper suggests, governments around the world are leaving open the possibility that a well-coordinated cyberwar could quickly elevate to nuclear levels.

In fact, says the study, “this may be an easier alternative for terrorist groups than building or acquiring a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb themselves”.

Though the paper admits that the media and entertainment industries often confuse and exaggerate the risk of cyberterrorism, it also outlines a number of potential threats and situations in which dedicated hackers could use information warfare techniques to make a nuclear attack more likely.

Note the weasel words: the study “suggests that under the right circumstances.” We’re “leaving open the possibility.” The report “outlines a number of potential threats and situations” where the bad guys could “make a nuclear attack more likely.”

Gadzooks. I’m tired of this idiocy. Stop overreacting to rare risks. Refuse to be terrorized, people.

Posted on July 31, 2009 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Verifiable Dismantling of Nuclear Bombs

Cryptography has zero-knowledge proofs, where Alice can prove to Bob that she knows something without revealing it to Bob. Here’s something similar from the real world. It’s a research project to allow weapons inspectors from one nation to verify the disarming of another nation’s nuclear weapons without learning any weapons secrets in the process, such as the amount of nuclear material in the weapon.

Posted on July 21, 2009 at 6:50 AMView Comments

John Mueller on Nuclear Disarmament

The New York Times website has a blog called “Room for Debate,” where a bunch of people—experts in their areas—write short essays commenting on a news item. (I participated a few weeks ago.) Earlier this month, there was a post on nuclear disarmament, following President Obama’s speech in Cairo that mentioned the subject. One of the commentators was John Mueller, Ohio State University political science professor and longtime critic of the terrorism hype. (I recommend his book, Overblown.) His commentary was very good; I especially liked the first sentence. An excerpt:

The notion that the world should rid itself of nuclear weapons has been around for over six decades—during which time they have been just about the only instrument of destruction that hasn’t killed anybody. The abolition idea has been dismissed by most analysts because, since inspection of any arms reduction cannot be perfect, the measure could potentially put wily cheaters in a commanding position.

There may be another approach to the same end, one that, while also imperfect, would require far less effort while greatly reducing the amount of sanctimonious huffing and puffing we would have to endure.

Just let it happen.

While it may not be entirely fair to characterize disarmament as an effort to cure a fever by destroying the thermometer, the analogy is instructive when it is reversed: when fever subsides, the instrument designed to measure it loses its usefulness and is often soon misplaced.

Indeed, a fair amount of nuclear arms reduction, requiring little in the way of formal agreement, has already taken place between the former cold war contestants.

Posted on June 22, 2009 at 1:46 PMView Comments

Yet Another New York Times Cyberwar Article

It’s the season, I guess:

The United States has no clear military policy about how the nation might respond to a cyberattack on its communications, financial or power networks, a panel of scientists and policy advisers warned Wednesday, and the country needs to clarify both its offensive capabilities and how it would respond to such attacks.

The report, based on a three-year study by a panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, is the first major effort to look at the military use of computer technologies as weapons. The potential use of such technologies offensively has been widely discussed in recent years, and disruptions of communications systems and Web sites have become a standard occurrence in both political and military conflicts since 2000.

Here’s the report summary, which I have not read yet.

I was particularly disturbed by the last paragraph of the newspaper article:

Introducing the possibility of a nuclear response to a catastrophic cyberattack would be expected to serve the same purpose.

Nuclear war is not a suitable response to a cyberattack.

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 10:46 AMView Comments

Interview on Nuclear Terror

With Brian Michael Jenkins from Rand Corp. I like his distinction between “terrorism” and “terror”:

NJ: Why did you decide to delve so deeply into the psychological underpinnings of nuclear terror?

Jenkins: Well, I couldn’t write about the history of nuclear terrorism, because at least as of yet there hasn’t been any. So that would have been a very short book. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has stated that it is the No. 1 threat to the national security of the United States. In fact, according to public opinion polls, two out of five Americans consider it likely that a terrorist will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next five years. That struck me as an astonishing level of apprehension.

NJ: To what do you attribute that fear?

Jenkins: I concluded that there is a difference between nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror. Nuclear terrorism is about the possibility that terrorists will acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon. Nuclear terror, on the other hand, concerns our anticipation of such an attack. It’s about our imagination. And while there is no history of nuclear terrorism, there is a rich history of nuclear terror. It’s deeply embedded in our popular culture and in policy-making circles.

This is also good:

NJ: How do you break this chain reaction of fear?

Jenkins: The first thing we have to do is truly understand the threat. Nuclear terrorism is a frightening possibility but it is not inevitable or imminent, and there is no logical progression from truck bombs to nuclear bombs. Some of the steps necessary to a sustainable strategy we’ve already begun. We do need better intelligence-sharing internationally and enhanced homeland security and civil defense, and we need to secure stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world.

Nations that might consider abetting terrorists in acquiring nuclear weapons should also be made aware that we will hold them fully responsible in the event of an attack. We need to finish the job of eliminating Al Qaeda, not only to prevent another attack but also to send the message to others that if you go down this path, we will hunt you down relentlessly and destroy you.

NJ: What should political leaders tell the American people?

Jenkins: Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis—we’re doomed!—and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.

Posted on November 11, 2008 at 6:26 AMView Comments

People and Security Rules

In this article analyzing a security failure resulting in live nuclear warheads being flown over the U.S., there’s an interesting commentary on people and security rules:

Indeed, the gaff [sic] that allowed six nukes out over three major American cities (Omaha, Neb., Kansas City, Mo., and Little Rock, Ark.) could have been avoided if the Air Force personnel had followed procedure.

“Let’s not forget that the existing rules were pretty tight,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. “Much of what went wrong occurred because people didn’t follow these tight rules. You can have all sorts of rules and regulations, but they still won’t do any good if the people don’t follow them.”

Procedures are a tough balancing act. If they’re too lax, there will be security problems. If they’re too tight, people will get around them and there will be security problems.

Posted on April 14, 2008 at 6:47 AMView Comments

Detecting Nuclear Weapons Using the Cell Phone Network

Okay, this is clever:

Such a system could blanket the nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a tracking system, said physics professor Ephraim Fischbach. Fischbach is working with Jere Jenkins, director of Purdue’s radiation laboratories within the School of Nuclear Engineering.


Tiny solid-state radiation sensors are commercially available. The detection system would require additional circuitry and would not add significant bulk to portable electronic products, Fischbach said.

I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to deploy such a system, but I like the idea of piggy-backing a nationwide sensor network on top of our already existing cell phone infrastructure.

Posted on February 1, 2008 at 12:54 PMView Comments

MI5 Sounds Alarm on Internet Spying from China

Someone in MI5 is pissed off at China:

In an unprecedented alert, the Director-General of MI5 sent a confidential letter to 300 chief executives and security chiefs at banks, accountants and legal firms this week warning them that they were under attack from “Chinese state organisations.”


Firms known to have been compromised recently by Chinese attacks are one of Europe’s largest engineering companies and a large oil company, The Times has learnt. Another source familiar with the MI5 warning said, however, that known attacks had not been limited to large firms based in the City of London. Law firms and other businesses in the regions that deal even with only small parts of Chinese-linked deals are being probed as potential weak spots, he said.

A security expert who has also seen the letter said that among the techniques used by Chinese groups were “custom Trojans”, software designed to hack into the network of a particular firm and feed back confidential data. The MI5 letter includes a list of known “signatures” that can be used to identify Chinese Trojans and a list of internet addresses known to have been used to launch attacks.

A big study gave warning this week that Government and military computer systems in Britain are coming under sustained attack from China and other countries. It followed a report presented to the US Congress last month describing Chinese espionage in the US as so extensive that it represented “the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies.”

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): The Onion comments.

EDITED TO ADD (12/14): At first, I thought that someone in MI5 was pissed off at China. But now I think that someone in MI5 was pissed that he wasn’t getting any budget.

Posted on December 4, 2007 at 12:34 PMView Comments

British Nuclear Security Kind of Slipshod

No two-person control or complicated safety features: until 1998, you could arm British nukes with a bicycle lock key.

To arm the weapons you just open a panel held by two captive screws—like a battery cover on a radio—using a thumbnail or a coin.

Inside are the arming switch and a series of dials which you can turn with an Allen key to select high yield or low yield, air burst or groundburst and other parameters.

The Bomb is actually armed by inserting a bicycle lock key into the arming switch and turning it through 90 degrees. There is no code which needs to be entered or dual key system to prevent a rogue individual from arming the Bomb.

Certainly most of the security was procedural. But still….

Posted on November 21, 2007 at 12:50 PMView Comments

The Overblown Threat of Suitcase Nukes

From the AP:

…government experts and intelligence officials say such a threat gets vastly more attention than it deserves. These officials said a true suitcase nuke would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune.

Counterproliferation authorities do not completely rule out the possibility that these portable devices once existed. But they do not think the threat remains.

“The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies,” said Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. “No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices.”

Interesting technical details in the article.

Posted on November 15, 2007 at 3:38 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.