The Stuxnet virus that damaged Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was worse than we thought. In fact, Ralph Langner, a cyber security expert, described it as “far more dangerous than the cyberweapon that is now lodged in the public’s imagination.”
Claimed by some to be a joint project between the U.S. and Israel, Stuxnet garnered worldwide attention when it destroyed about a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. But according to Langner the story behind the story is that Stuxnet is not really one weapon, but there exist two versions of the virus.
“The vast majority of the attention has been paid to Stuxnet's smaller and simpler attack routine -- the one that changes the speeds of the rotors in a centrifuge, which is used to enrich uranium,” Langner wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “But the [older version of Stuxnet] is about an order of magnitude more complex and stealthy.”
An Opening Salvo
It is now known that in 2007, an older version of Stuxnet, dubbed Stuxnet Mark I, targeted the gas valves in the Iranian nuclear reactor. By contrast, the second version of Stuxnet, which was reported in 2010, targeted the reactors' cores.
According to Langner, the first and largely forgotten version of the virus qualifies as nightmare for those who understand industrial control system security. And strangely, he said, this more sophisticated attack came first while the more familiar routine followed only years later -- and was discovered in comparatively short order.
We caught up with John Shier, a senior security advisor at Sophos, to get his reaction to the report. He told us Langner talks about Stuxnet as being the opening salvo in cyberwar -- and he couldn't agree more. While technology has been used in the past as part of larger and more traditional military campaigns, he said, Stuxnet is the most successful, purpose-built cyber weapon that we know of. And it also won't be the last.
“Whatever the reason for its eventual spread -- Langner posits this is due in part to contractors working at different customers and 'manually' spreading the malware versus exhibiting worm-like behaviour -- Stuxnet had some very serious unintended consequences, namely: Duqu and Flame,” Shier said. “Once the Stuxnet code was 'in the wild', portions of it became further weaponized and used to spawn new malware families targeting non-political assets. We don't need this kind of help from our own side.”
A Scary Proposition
Shier noted another interesting point from the report -- Stuxnet didn't necessarily exploit vulnerabilities so much as features. As he sees it, this is a scary proposition insofar as the weapon didn't rely entirely on novel discoveries but turned the system on itself.
“I would use the rough analogy that instead of cutting someone's brakes, you're making the accelerator stick,” he said. “This kind of action is a paradigm shift from most of the exploits that we see which typically try to break something. Anyone with a thorough understanding of the target can potentially use it against itself.”
Overall, Shier said, the report provides interesting insight into one of the most publicized cyber weapons to date. He said he thinks the conclusion that Stuxnet has given de facto 'permission' and motivation for other nation states to attempt their own version isn't entirely unfounded.
“I also think that it provided many nation states with a handy blueprint on how to do it well,” Shier said. “Whatever the long term impact, Stuxnet will always be remembered as a turning point in what was to be an eventual progression of the militarization of technology.”
Posted: 2013-11-24 @ 7:57pm PT
It makes the system turn on itself? By accelerating existing operations? Sounds like a cancer.