Michael Gurstein on Thu, 23 Sep 2010 14:23:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Stuxnet malware is 'weapon' out to destroy ... Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant? The Christian Science Monitor

Stuxnet malware is 'weapon' out to destroy ... Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant?
The Christian Science Monitor

By Mark Clayton - Tue Sep 21, 3:08 pm ET

Cyber security experts say they have identified the world's first known
cyber super weapon designed specifically to destroy a real-world target - a
factory, a refinery, or just maybe a nuclear power plant.

The cyber worm, called Stuxnet, has been the object of intense study since
its detection in June. As more has become known about it, alarm about its
capabilities and purpose have grown. Some top cyber security experts now say
Stuxnet's arrival heralds something blindingly new: a cyber weapon created
to cross from the digital realm to the physical world - to destroy

At least one expert who has extensively studied the malicious software, or
malware, suggests Stuxnet may have already attacked its target - and that it
may have been Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which much of the world
condemns as a nuclear weapons threat.

The appearance of Stuxnet created a ripple of amazement among computer
security experts. Too large, too encrypted, too complex to be immediately
understood, it employed amazing new tricks, like taking control of a
computer system without the user taking any action or clicking any button
other than inserting an infected memory stick. Experts say it took a massive
expenditure of time, money, and software engineering talent to identify and
exploit such vulnerabilities in industrial control software systems.

Unlike most malware, Stuxnet is not intended to help someone make money or
steal proprietary data. Industrial control systems experts now have
concluded, after nearly four months spent reverse engineering Stuxnet, that
the world faces a new breed of malware that could become a template for
attackers wishing to launch digital strikes at physical targets worldwide.
Internet link not required.

"Until a few days ago, people did not believe a directed attack like this
was possible," Ralph Langner, a German cyber-security researcher, told the
Monitor in an interview. He was slated to present his findings at a
conference of industrial control system security experts Tuesday in
Rockville, Md. "What Stuxnet represents is a future in which people with the
funds will be able to buy an attack like this on the black market. This is
now a valid concern."

A gradual dawning of Stuxnet's purpose

It is a realization that has emerged only gradually.

Stuxnet surfaced in June and, by July, was identified as a
hypersophisticated piece of malware probably created by a team working for a
nation state, say cyber security experts. Its name is derived from some of
the filenames in the malware. It is the first malware known to target and
infiltrate industrial supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)
software used to run chemical plants and factories as well as electric power
plants and transmission systems worldwide. That much the experts discovered
right away.

But what was the motive of the people who created it? Was Stuxnet intended
to steal industrial secrets - pressure, temperature, valve, or other
settings -and communicate that proprietary data over the Internet to cyber

By August, researchers had found something more disturbing: Stuxnet appeared
to be able to take control of the automated factory control systems it had
infected - and do whatever it was programmed to do with them. That was
mischievous and dangerous.

But it gets worse. Since reverse engineering chunks of Stuxnet's massive
code, senior US cyber security experts confirm what Mr. Langner, the German
researcher, told the Monitor: Stuxnet is essentially a precision,
military-grade cyber missile deployed early last year to seek out and
destroy one real-world target of high importance - a target still unknown.

"Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an
industrial process in the physical world," says Langner, who last week
became the first to publicly detail Stuxnet's destructive purpose and its
authors' malicious intent. "This is not about espionage, as some have said.
This is a 100 percent sabotage attack."

A guided cyber missile

On his website, Langner lays out the Stuxnet code he has dissected. He shows
step by step how Stuxnet operates as a guided cyber missile. Three top US
industrial control system security experts, each of whom has also
independently reverse-engineered portions of Stuxnet, confirmed his findings
to the Monitor.

"His technical analysis is good," says a senior US researcher who has
analyzed Stuxnet, who asked for anonymity because he is not allowed to speak
to the press. "We're also tearing [Stuxnet] apart and are seeing some of the
same things."

Other experts who have not themselves reverse-engineered Stuxnet but are
familiar with the findings of those who have concur with Langner's analysis.

"What we're seeing with Stuxnet is the first view of something new that
doesn't need outside guidance by a human - but can still take control of
your infrastructure," says Michael Assante, former chief of industrial
control systems cyber security research at the US Department of Energy's
Idaho National Laboratory. "This is the first direct example of weaponized
software, highly customized and designed to find a particular target."

"I'd agree with the classification of this as a weapon," Jonathan Pollet,
CEO of Red Tiger Security and an industrial control system security expert,
says in an e-mail.

One researcher's findingsLangner's research, outlined on his website Monday,
reveals a key step in the Stuxnet attack that other researchers agree
illustrates its destructive purpose. That step, which Langner calls
"fingerprinting," qualifies Stuxnet as a targeted weapon, he says.

Langner zeroes in on Stuxnet's ability to "fingerprint" the computer system
it infiltrates to determine whether it is the precise machine the
attack-ware is looking to destroy. If not, it leaves the industrial computer
alone. It is this digital fingerprinting of the control systems that shows
Stuxnet to be not spyware, but rather attackware meant to destroy, Langner

Stuxnet's ability to autonomously and without human assistance discriminate
among industrial computer systems is telling. It means, says Langner, that
it is looking for one specific place and time to attack one specific factory
or power plant in the entire world.

"Stuxnet is the key for a very specific lock - in fact, there is only one
lock in the world that it will open," Langner says in an interview. "The
whole attack is not at all about stealing data but about manipulation of a
specific industrial process at a specific moment in time. This is not
generic. It is about destroying that process."

So far, Stuxnet has infected at least 45,000 industrial control systems
around the world, without blowing them up - although some victims in North
America have experienced some serious computer problems, Eric Byres, a
Canadian expert, told the Monitor. Most of the victim computers, however,
are in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. Some systems have been hit in
Germany, Canada, and the US, too. Once a system is infected, Stuxnet simply
sits and waits - checking every five seconds to see if its exact parameters
are met on the system. When they are, Stuxnet is programmed to activate a
sequence that will cause the industrial process to self-destruct, Langner

Langner's analysis also shows, step by step, what happens after Stuxnet
finds its target. Once Stuxnet identifies the critical function running on a
programmable logic controller, or PLC, made by Siemens, the giant industrial
controls company, the malware takes control. One of the last codes Stuxnet
sends is an enigmatic "DEADF007." Then the fireworks begin, although the
precise function being overridden is not known, Langner says. It may be that
the maximum safety setting for RPMs on a turbine is overridden, or that
lubrication is shut off, or some other vital function shut down. Whatever it
is, Stuxnet overrides it, Langner's analysis shows.

"After the original code [on the PLC] is no longer executed, we can expect
that something will blow up soon," Langner writes in his analysis.
"Something big."

For those worried about a future cyber attack that takes control of critical
computerized infrastructure - in a nuclear power plant, for instance -
Stuxnet is a big, loud warning shot across the bow, especially for the
utility industry and government overseers of the US power grid.

"The implications of Stuxnet are very large, a lot larger than some thought
at first," says Mr. Assante, who until recently was security chief for the
North American Electric Reliability Corp. "Stuxnet is a directed attack.
It's the type of threat we've been worried about for a long time. It means
we have to move more quickly with our defenses - much more quickly."

Has Stuxnet already hit its target?It might be too late for Stuxnet's
target, Langner says. He suggests it has already been hit - and destroyed or
heavily damaged. But Stuxnet reveals no overt clues within its code to what
it is after.

A geographical distribution of computers hit by Stuxnet, which Microsoft
produced in July, found Iran to be the apparent epicenter of the Stuxnet
infections. That suggests that any enemy of Iran with advanced cyber war
capability might be involved, Langner says. The US is acknowledged to have
that ability, and Israel is also reported to have a formidable offensive
cyber-war-fighting capability.

Could Stuxnet's target be Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, a facility
much of the world condemns as a nuclear weapons threat?

Langner is quick to note that his views on Stuxnet's target is speculation
based on suggestive threads he has seen in the media. Still, he suspects
that the Bushehr plant may already have been wrecked by Stuxnet. Bushehr's
expected startup in late August has been delayed, he notes, for unknown
reasons. (One Iranian official blamed the delay on hot weather.)

But if Stuxnet is so targeted, why did it spread to all those countries?
Stuxnet might have been spread by the USB memory sticks used by a Russian
contractor while building the Bushehr nuclear plant, Langner offers. The
same contractor has jobs in several countries where the attackware has been

"This will all eventually come out and Stuxnet's target will be known,"
Langner says. "If Bushehr wasn't the target and it starts up in a few
months, well, I was wrong. But somewhere out there, Stuxnet has found its
target. We can be fairly certain of that."


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