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Stuxnet: a New Era in Global Security

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Stuxnet was a malware which affected an Iranian nuclear facility (along with couple of other industrial sites across the world). It was found in 2010 but it took quite a while to actually discover it. What is particular about it is the fact that it crossed the line between cyber and physical domain, showing that it was possible to use a code to damage a critical infrastructure.  Before it, a general debate in national / global security on how a critical infrastructure can be targeted and damaged through the information system has only been theoretical.  After Stuxnet it was evident that cyberspace could be exploited and used to launch cyberattacks in order to cause physical damage. So what actually happened?

On June 17, 2010 Sergey Ulazin from a small security company in Belarus received a help-request for technical support from a customer in Iran. Arbitrary BSODs (a stop error after a system crash) and computer reboots were reported. After careful examination and a regular check for system malfunction, it was discovered that a malware infection was probably involved (The Man Who Found Stuxnet – Sergey Ulasen in the Spotlight). Having a stealthy nature and strange payload, it was later named Stuxnet, according to the file-name found in the code. A computer worm infected at least 14 industrial sites in Iran along with the uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz.

It carried genuine digital certificates (they guarantee that you can trust a file) from recognized companies, and it was well-developed and direct. The malware was able to determine the target it was looking for. In case, it was not, it did nothing and moved on to another system. This “fingerprinting of the control systems” proved that it was not just an average malicious program, but a targeted malware that meant to destroy.

Although Stuxnet relied on a physical person to install it (via USB flash drive), the worm spreads on its own between computers with Windows operating system. It affects other machines, regardless of the connection to the Internet though a local computer network. It could also infect other USB flash drives and jump into other computers through it. Moreover, it proliferates very quickly.

Once the worm infects a system, it waits, checking if necessary parameters are met. As soon as they are, it activates a sequence that causes industrial process to self-destruct. Symantec, a software company that provides cyber security software and services, conducted a thorough analysis of Stuxnet and found that Iran, Indonesia and India were the most affected countries in the early days of infection. The nuclear facility at Natanz was one of the most affected.

Furthermore, the principle is that this malware identifies a target, then records the data and finally decides what normal operations are. After this, it plays pre-recorded data on the computers of the personnel so that they think that the centrifuges are running normally, when in fact they are not. In the end, it erases itself from the system so that it cannot be traced and/or found.

The International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the Natanz facility and confirmed (International Atomic Energy Agency (2010)) that the centrifuges were malfunctioning and producing less than 20% of enriched uranium. However, at that time, the reason for that was unknown. The most detailed damage assessment came later from the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. It claimed that Stuxnet destroyed 984 centrifuges. However, Iran has not provided such a number, and the IAEA failed to give precise information on the damage.

Stuxnet crossed this line where a code infects software or digital programs, what it actually did, it affected the physical equipment. This has brought a new technological revolution. Before, viruses were used by cyber pranksters and minor rowdies to cause a system to crash on computers of innocent victims. But state-to-state attacks and a cyberwar were not discussed and were not thought of, as it was something out of science fiction scenarios. Stuxnet has changed this perception, and opened a new era in global security.

A former chief of industrial control systems cyber security research said that Stuxnet was “the first view of something … that doesn’t need outside guidance by a human – but can still take control of your infrastructure. This is the first direct example of weaponized software, highly customized and designed to find a particular target.” It is not hard to imagine that similar malicious programs can be developed in the future and used to achieve a military and/or political goal.

Many believe that the cyberattacks on Iran nuclear facility were meant to slow down Iran nuclear program. However, enrichment recovered within a year, and did not permanently damage nuclear program. Some experts also say that it had no effect on nuclear program whatsoever and the whole situation around Stuxnet was over-hyped by the media. Others are also saying that evidence on the malware has been inconclusive and Stuxnet may have, in fact, helped in speeding up Iranian nuclear program. The media reaction towards cyberattacks may have been exaggerated because of the secrecy around cyber issues but in end Stuxnet has made a good story.

As to the parties involved, the attack was not tied to a specific name and/or a country. Yet, it widely believed to be launched by U.S. and Israel. The sophistication of the program required considerable amount of resources, including extensive financial support and skilled specialists. This is why many security companies and experts agree on attributing the complex malware to one or more states. Among them is Kaspersky Lab, a multinational cyber security company, who says that the attack was launched with a specific motivation in mind. The attackers wanted to access industrial control systems which monitor and control infrastructure and processes of the facility. (Similar systems are used in power plants, communication systems, airports, and even military sites). Moreover, such an attack required significant amount of intelligence data so Kaspersky Lab is convinced that it was likely supported by a nation state.

Although the identity of the attacker is still unknown, many experts in international politics believe that the attack was clearly politically-motivated and aimed to slow down the development of Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and Israel both deny their involvement in Stuxnet, however, some leaked information (WikiLeaks, CBC interview with a former CIA director Michael Hayden etc.) suggests that the claims might have some credibility. Regardless the claims made, it is important to highlight that no country officially declared that it launched an offensive cyberattack.

All in all, Stuxnet has revolutionized the way we look at malicious digital programs and boosted a debate about cyber tools used for political purpose. After all, we are living in a highly digitalized world where we are dependent on technology. Military is no exception. Digital technologies are widely being incorporated into military planning and operations. Modern nuclear and conventional weapons systems rely and depend on information systems for launching, targeting, command and control, including technologies that govern safety and security. It is clear that future military conflicts will all include a digital aspect and cyber technologies. Stuxnet was just an early version of software that could potentially destroy an industrial site, specifically a nuclear facility. If malware actually achieved its goals, consequences would have been disastrous and could cause an international crisis.

 After all, as experts once have said, “Major concern is no longer weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass disruption” (Cetron and Davies, 2009).

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Specialist in global security and nuclear disarmament. Excited about international relations, curious about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics. A complete traveller.

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7 Practical Ways To Keep Your Kids Safe Online

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The internet has many advantages to offer kids. Used well, it can be an infinite source of knowledge and an excellent communication tool for kids. 

However, the internet can also be a dark and scary place. It has its fair share of bullies and cybercriminals out to take advantage of innocent children. Add to that a plethora of inappropriate content, and it is understandable why many parents would rather not allow their kids to use the internet.

But in this day and age, forbidding your children from accessing the internet is simply impractical. 

So, what is a concerned parent to do about keeping their kids safe in the jungle that is the internet? Here are seven valuable tips to help you in your quest.

Educate Yourself

It may surprise you how far behind most parents are when it comes to tech matters. First, however, the vigilant parent must learn how the internet works to guide their children safely through its murky waters. This requires you to:

  • Know how different social media platforms work
  • Be able to operate the programs your kids use 
  • Have a good grasp of the content your kid’s favorite websites

If you come across as tech-savvy, your kids will view you as an authority on internet matters. This makes them more receptive to any advice you offer regarding safe internet use. 

Consequently, they’re less likely to engage in inappropriate internet conduct.

Preach Accountability

As a parent, the best way to keep your kids safe in any environment is to teach them how to make good decisions. This is the same approach you should take with the internet as well.

Start by making your kids aware of the dangers that lurk online. Discourage them from sharing sensitive information on the internet, and explain the impact of leaving undesirable digital footprints. Help them see that they should use the internet cautiously.

Additionally, it would be best to tell your kids how you expect them to behave online. Set ground rules around internet and tech devices, like limiting their screen time and asking that they don’t use their devices in the bedroom. 

Another clever way to stay informed about what your kids are doing on the internet is to join their social circles. Follow them on Instagram, befriend them on FaceBook, and watch their TikTok videos. 

Granted, they may not be very keen on being your friend on social media sites. But this does not mean that you should give up. If they are resistant at first, make it a precondition to accessing their devices. They will likely comply.

Use Parental Controls

An excellent way to put your mind at ease is to use parental control software on your children’s devices. These include filters that restrict your kids’ access to potentially inappropriate content. 

You could also use software that limits how much time kids can spend on their phones and tablets. If you think that your children are engaging in risky online behavior, you can install the best spying app for iphone on their devices. 

This allows you discreet yet unfettered access to their every activity, enabling you to act promptly on suspicious activity. 

In addition, spyware is highly effective with older kids who know how to erase their search history.

Put Devices in a Public Place

One of the best ways to ensure that you are always aware of your kids using their devices is to have them in a public place. Place the monitor such that you can quickly glance over it and get a general idea of what your children are viewing. 

You can also have a rule prohibiting screens in the bedroom where it is difficult to supervise your kids. 

However, this is not to say that you should be a helicopter parent. You don’t want your kids to view you as overbearing and controlling. Instead, you want them to know that you can see what they are generally doing but are happy to allow their independent internet exploration.

Use Tech With Your Kids

As a parent, embracing technology can open communication channels, you never imagined. Kids are generally more comfortable texting than speaking face to face. So take advantage of this fact and get to learn more about your kids.

Text them often to find out how they are doing. Send your kids images and videos that you find funny. If they consider you their friend, they will be forthcoming and will trust your guidance more.

Teach Your Kids What Not To Share

Be sure to teach your children never to share sensitive information online. This includes details of your home address, the school they attend, and your workplace. 

Sharing this information can seriously compromise your family’s security, and this is a risk your kids should know. 

Additionally, enlighten your children about the danger of sharing overly revealing photos online. If they are unsure about a specific picture, have them run the problem by you or an older sibling. 

This will prevent young kids from falling into the trap of shady internet users. 

Lead by Example

Finally, it would be best if you practiced what you preach. If you require your kids to adhere to any screen time guidelines, be sure to limit your use of screens as well. If you want them to be cautious in their online interactions, show them that you are careful as well. 

Parents who don’t lead by example find it much harder to get their kids to comply with their safe internet use guidelines. If you are irresponsible online, you won’t motivate your children to practice responsible online behavior. 

What’s worse, they might copy your actions and potentially expose themselves to danger.  

Keeping kids safe online requires a lot of parental involvement. You can start by befriending your kids, asking them to communicate often with you, and regularly checking to see that they are using the internet responsibly. 

Additionally, you can use parental control software to ensure that your kids are safe online. If you follow these tips, you will find it much easier to protect your kids from the dangers of the internet.

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Improving the User Experience of Your Business Website

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The user experience of your site can make or break its success. If it offers a poor user experience, it can immediately turn off your users, causing them to look elsewhere for the products or services that they need. User experience is all about how your users use your site and whether they’re satisfied with the experience it offers them. You might ask things such as whether the site is easy to navigate or whether it provides the information that your users are looking for. Improving the user experience (UX) of your site can help you to get more visitors, improve SEO, and boost your conversions too.

Know Your User

Before you can get your user experience right, you have to understand your user. You need to get to know them so you know what they’re looking for and how to make them happy. You can carry out market research to get to know your users, drawing from secondary sources and surveying people directly to find out what your audience wants from your website. Once you have that essential data, you can use it to make important decisions about the design of your website. It’s much better than designing a site without any knowledge of who it’s for.

Use Clear Calls to Action

Your website is an advertisement for your business. It might also be where people directly purchase and pay for your products or services. Its goal is to get users to follow a journey to becoming your customer. It needs to tell them what to do next and guide them through how to get what they want. One of the most important things to use on each page is a clear call to action. A call to action tells your visitor which action to take, whether it’s signing up for your newsletter, requesting a quote, or adding a product to their cart.

Make Your Site Accessible

Your website should be accessible for everyone, which includes making it usable for disabled people. You should think about the different needs that people may have, including how they can view and navigate your site. Some of the issues to consider might include color contrast, font size, keyboard navigation, subtitles for videos, transcripts for audio media, and how screen readers will view your site. You can find a few different tools that help you to determine how accessible your site is and what you can do to improve it.

Focus on Speed

Site speed is a major factor in user experience, and it’s also very important for SEO. If your site is slow, it won’t perform well in search engines and your users could leave much more quickly than you would like them to. Many things could slow down your site, leaving your visitors frustrated. You might have too many things on the page or perhaps you don’t have adequate hosting to support your site and its users. You can use online tools to test the speed of your site and each of the pages, and many will give you tips on how to improve the speed.

Test Your Design

Whatever your website design looks like, it’s always smart to test it and find out how it’s performing. You can test how people use your site, where they tend to click, and where their focus is. Using a tool like Userzoom’s click testing software, this sort of testing is easy. You get to see heatmaps, darkmaps, and click clusters so that you can see how people use your site. Using this information, you can make changes to your site to ensure you lead your users in the right direction.

Check Mobile Usability

More people than ever are using mobile devices. If you’re designing a website for your business, it’s vital that it’s usable for mobile users. They need to be able to use your site and have the same great experience as anyone using a desktop computer has. Your design should be responsive so that it adapts to different screen sizes and browsers, and can be used with both a touch screen and a keyboard and mouse. Mobile usability isn’t just important for UX but is also a factor that affects SEO.

Create a Scannable Site

Most people who visit your site aren’t going to read everything on it. They will take everything in by scanning each page, stopping on the bits that they feel are the most important. So it’s smart to think about how people might scan your site and how to make the information on the page easy to digest. Breaking text into small chunks helps to make it easier to scan. Similarly, using different font sizes for headings and paragraphs allows you to identify the main subject of each piece of copy. It’s also good for SEO if you use the right heading tags.

Keep It Simple

Some websites might need some complicated coding behind the scenes to make them work. However, when it comes to what your users see, you usually don’t want to make it too complicated. People want to be able to navigate around your site with ease and find what they’re looking for. Too many elements or complicated navigation will make it more difficult for people to get around your website. Keeping it simple is the best strategy if you want to satisfy your users.

Provide Engaging Content

When your website users are looking for valuable information, you can provide it through engaging content. Your content might include blog posts, videos, or even a podcast that covers topics that are relevant to your users. Publishing regular, fresh content keeps people engaged and it can be great for search engine optimization too. Your content can be both informative and entertaining, providing your users with interesting material that helps to move them along in their buying journey. It’s useful for securing new customers and keeping existing customers engaged too.

Improve the user experience for your business website and you could start to see more conversions and sales.

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The Key Approaches To Strengthen Your Business’s Data Security

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Data security threats have become a topic of much concern as of late. We’ve all seen news of breaches both severe enough and frequently enough to reconsider how we protect our business. If you’re concerned that your business doesn’t have the provisions to protect itself from such a threat, then here are some of the approaches that you might want to take a closer look at.

Understanding cyber attacks

First of all, it’s important to understand the nature of cyberattacks. They are any form of attack that’s designed to access and exploit your system and network. The goals can include deletion of data, erasure of it, as well as denying your own access to it. However, cyberattacks come in many forms, meaning that you need to ensure that you have a scope that’s defended in various ways. Look at some of the most common cyberattacks lately. They include not only hacking through security flaws but also making use of scams to trick your team and the proliferation of malware that can steal data for them. As such, there are four main approaches to preventing the threat of a cyberattack.

Install the right tools

Hackers and cybercriminals have a lot more options at their disposal, the more open that your system is. As such, you should take a look at the various kinds of cybersecurity software that you can install on your systems. Antimalware is all about finding and eliminating things like viruses and spyware that can change or steal your data. Firewalls prevent unauthorized access to your networks. Virtual private networks usually hide your connection to networks while also encrypting any of the data sent to or from your systems so that if someone were able to “eavesdrop” on your connection, they would be unable to make sense of the data being sent. Depending on the type of network you work with, all of these tools might be necessary.

Have a strong IT staff

As a business grows and it becomes more reliant on sensitive data that, if stolen or erased, could be a huge cost to the business, it becomes more important to make sure that the IT team you have is able to responsibly keep that data safe. As such, beyond your basic IT support, you need those who specialize in security. You can outsource to expand the team or hire more members, but you can also look at providing training such as a masters in cyber security online, which may be more cost-effective in the long run. What matters most is that you make sure you have someone with the right skills and understanding of cybersecurity on your team in the end.

Training a smarter team

The team that protects your business from cybersecurity threats isn’t just the IT specialists that should know better. Any individual who uses any of the endpoints, including apps, devices, and software that connects to your sensitive data should be well aware of their responsibility. Basic IT security training for all of your team should include things such as the following: recognizing scams that they should avoid, making sure they don’t leave their terminals alone while they are logged in, and the appropriate ways to report any evidence of a perceived breach. A large number of successful data breaches are caused by employees who did not perceive a potential threat, such as phishing scams or dodgy links that then lead to someone getting hold of their access data.

Adapting to new endpoints

As your business grows and its IT scope grows, you’re likely to start adding new hardware (such as PCs, tablets, and the like) to devices that can access the data you want to keep secure. Similarly, new software might make use of that data as well. It’s important that you and your IT team consider the security of each endpoint, making sure that it doesn’t open up any new breaches in the network that can’t easily be covered again. This is especially important in the age of remote working. You need to make sure that any devices that your employees use have the right tools on them to protect them from outside interference. This can mean, for instance, having the policy to provide VPNs and anti-malware for each employee that remote works and making sure they’re installed.

The pointers above are just the start. You need to take a more detailed look at each and every one of these considerations to make sure that you’re taking a comprehensive approach to preventing breaches and the massive reputational and financial damage that they can do to a business.

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