April 18, 2014

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Safire: US Blew Up Soviet Pipeline with Software Trojan Horse

William Safire tells an amazing story in his column in today’s New York Times. He says that in the early 1980′s, the U.S. government hid malicious code in oil-pipeline-control software that the Soviet Union then stole and used to control a huge trans-Siberia pipeline. The malicious code manipulated the pipelines valves and other controls in a way that caused a huge explosion, ruining the pipeline.

After that, Safire reports, “all the software [the Soviet Union] had stolen for years was suddenly suspect, which stopped or delayed the work of thousands of worried Russian technicians and scientists.”

I should emphasize that as of yet there is no corroboration for this story; and the story appears in an editorial-page column and not on the news pages of the Times (where it would presumably be subject to more stringent fact-checking, especially in light of the Times’ recent experience).

From a purely technical standpoint, this sort of thing is definitely possible. Any time you rely on somebody else to write your software, especially software that controls dangerous equipment, you’re trusting that person not to insert malicious code. Whether it’s true or not, Safire’s story is instructive.

Comments

  1. Chris Adams says:

    I too thought this was an attempt to get a little positive PR but the CIA has it on their website:

    http://www.cia.gov/csi/studies/96unclass/farewell.htm

    According to archive.org it’s been there since August of 2000

  2. paul beard says:

    Apple planted something non-destructive in their Macintosh ROMS in the early 80s . . . .
    Folklore.org: Macintosh Stories: Stolen From Apple:”Steve decided that if a company copied the Mac ROM into their computer, he would like to be able to do a demo during the trial, where he could type a few keystokes into an unmodified infringing machine, and have a large “Stolen From Apple” icon appear on its screen. The routines and data to accomplish that would have to be incorporated into our ROM in a stealthy fashion, so the cloners wouldn’t know how to find or remove it.”

  3. Seth Finkelstein says:

    It’s an amusing story, but I’m skeptical. It’s the basic plot of too many stories with a twist ending, for me to take it at face value (“Do not worry that The Enemy has stolen The Blueprints – I secretly sabotaged the plans so that they will blow up”). It sounds like something a spy would *tell* as a story. And that the principle actor is dead now just gives it more of a friend-of-a-friend flavor.

  4. plibin says:

    I only recently found this blog and think it’s great.

    The NYT story smells a bit odd. I think that the Soviets would examine any technology they stole from the US pretty closely since figuring out how it worked would be almost as important as using it. Could the Trojan horse really be hidden so well that the Soviets wouldn’t see it? If they did see obvious and malicious implanted code, the Russians would quickly figure out the intelligence flaw and take steps to close the breach. Seems like a big a risk for the CIA to take with an established and obviously useful spy channel. Then again, it might be true – which raises some interesting questions which I wrote about here, earlier today

  5. Precision Blogger says:

    This story requires a very specific kind of corroboration. The software changes Safire describes had to be made and tested, carefully, by a few people very familiar with the software. I’ll believe the story if one or two of them (or their friends whom they swore to secrecy at the time) stand up and say, Yup, we made those changes; and give some credible detail to support their stories.

    If we hear from no developer, the story is likely made-up. It’s such a great story, there have to be lots of people who were in on it.

  6. ABliss says:

    If this did happen I would suggest such action took place primarily to supress, (stop and delay) soviet oil production. This is also why the soviet union breakup occurred around this time.

    By the 1980′s the Alaskan, Canadian, Mexico and North Sea oil fields were exporting enough to satisfy US demand. It’s around this time most of the world’s oil and gas reserves had been quantified. Why squandor the world’s most precious form of energy in the other hemisphere?

    I think I’ve seen a graph of “soviet oil production dip” somehere at the M.K Hubbert Centre.

    http://hubbert.mines.edu/

    or maybe HubbertPeak.com.

    http://www.hubbertpeak.com/

    Remember the “spice is vital for space travel”. The USA was trying to make a closed system not reach entropy as speedily as it otherwise would have.

    “War’s most common cause, the Embers found, was fear of deprivation. The victors in the wars they studied almost always took territory, food, and/or other critical resources from their enemies.” – Michael P. Ghiglieri