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Stuxnet malware is 'weapon' out to destroy ... Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant?

The Stuxnet malware has infiltrated industrial computer systems worldwide. Now, cyber security sleuths say it's a search-and-destroy weapon meant to hit a single target. One expert suggests it may be after Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2010

The reactor building of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, pictured here on Aug. 20, is located about 750 miles south of Tehran. Is the power plant the target of the malware Stuxnet?

Vahid Salemi/AP

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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.

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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 something.

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 thieves?

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.

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