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We learned this week of a new cyber-weapon, another tool possibly being used by countries gearing up for computer war. This one is called Gauss. Researchers say it appears to be related to Stuxnet. That's the computer virus that was directed against Iran's nuclear program. The Gauss virus was found in Lebanon, where it's infected a number of banks. NPR's Tom Gjelten says Gauss may bring new insight to the nature of war, espionage and superpower rivalry.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The researchers who discovered the Gauss worm say it bears a strong resemblance to viruses developed for the purpose of extracting money from people's bank accounts. It can be used to steal account login information, something cybercriminals do all the time.
What's different about Gauss, according to the virus researchers, is that it only targeted particular banks, largely in Lebanon. So who would have an interest in finding out what's in Lebanese bank accounts?
Bilal Saab from the Monterey Institute of International Studies knows that the U.S. government tries to keep track of financial activity carried out by the Hezbollah group based in Lebanon. And Hezbollah's ties to the regimes in Syria and Iran, Saab says, have only heightened the Americans' interest in Lebanese banks.
BILAL SAAB: They want to see if there's any extensive money laundering in these banks, whether Hezbollah is using them or perhaps even the Syrian government and the Iranian government to sustain their operations.
GJELTEN: Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based company that discovered the virus, did not speculate on who developed Gauss. But the lab did say it appeared to have come from a nation state, and probably from the same programmers who developed the Stuxnet and Flame viruses. Both of those have been tied to the United States and Israel. And Bilal Saab says if the Americans wanted to learn about Lebanese banking activities, they would probably need inside information.
SAAB: Keep in mind that Lebanon has a banking secrecy law, which means that you really cannot obtain any information about accounts in Lebanon. So that just might give you an indication why they felt the need to - if they are, actually, involved behind it - why they felt the need to come up with this virus.
GJELTEN: If the Kaspersky Lab report is accurate, it would suggest that countries - most notably the United States - are already using sophisticated cyber-tools to spy on and possibly even attack other countries.
But the intrigue does not stop there. Stuxnet, Flame and now Gauss have all been outed by the Kaspersky Lab in Moscow, founded by Eugene Kaspersky. Noah Shachtman, who recently profiled him for Wired magazine, notes that Kaspersky has close ties to the Russian government.
NOAH SHACHTMAN: He's a graduate of the KGB's cryptological academy. He was an officer in the Soviet military, an intelligence officer, and then got out of the military and started a business with his former KGB professor.
GJELTEN: A suggestion that the U.S. is waging cyber-war could serve the political interests of U.S. adversaries. The United States may now be seen as an aggressor in cyberspace. All this adds up to a new era, Shachtman says. Computer code has become geopolitics.
SHACHTMAN: These nation-state online espionage operations have become a major focus of international relations, of international strategy and of international power struggles.
GJELTEN: And from a propaganda perspective, the United States and its allies have been put on the defensive. Neither the Defense Department nor the Treasury Department is commenting on these revelations about the Gauss virus. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.