What Is The Stuxnet Worm?

Stuxnet is a computer worm that  targets industrial control systems, but is most famous for most likely being the first genuine cyber-weapon, in that it was designed to inflict physical damage.

It was developed by the US and Israel (although they have never confirmed this) to target the Iranian nuclear programme.

The worm, first spotted in 2010, targeted specific Siemens industrial control systems, and seemed to be targeting the systems controlling the centrifuges in the Iranian uranium enrichment project, apparently damaging 1,000 of these centrifuges and delaying the project, although the overall impact on the programme is not clear.

Stuxnet was a complicated worm, using four different zero-day exploits and likely took millions of dollars of research and months or years of work to create.

Is Cyber Warfare Escalation a Concern?

There is a definite risk that we are at the early stages of a cyberwar arms race: as countries realise that having a cyberwarfare strategy is necessary they will increase spending and start to stockpile weapons, just like any other arms race.

That means there could be more nations stockpiling zero-day attacks, which means more holes in software not being patched, which makes us all less secure. And countries with stockpiles of cyber weapons may mean cyber conflicts are able to escalate quicker. One of the big problems is that these programmes tend to be developed in secret with  very little oversight and accountability and with murky rules of engagement.

What are the targets in cyber-war?

Military systems are an obvious target: preventing commanders from communicating with their troops or seeing where the enemy is would give an attacker a major advantage.

However, because most developed economies rely on computerised systems for everything from power to food and transport many governments are very worried that rival states may target critical national infrastructure. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, or industrial control systems, which run factories, power stations and other industrial processes are a big target, as Stuxnet showed.

These systems can be decades old and were rarely designed with security as a priority, but are increasingly being connected to the internet to make them more efficient or easy to monitor. But this also makes these systems more vulnerable to attack, and security is rarely upgraded because the organisations operating them do not consider themselves to be a target.

A short history of Cyber-War

For many people 2007 was when cyber-war went from the theoretical to the actual.

When the government of the eastern European state of Estonia announced plans to move a Soviet war memorial, it found itself under a furious digital bombardment that knocked banks and government services offline (the attack is generally considered to have been Russian hackers; Russian authorities denied any knowledge).

However, the DDoS attacks on Estonia did not create physical damage and, while a significant event, were not considered to have risen to the level of actual cyber warfare.

Another cyberwarfare milestone was hit the same year, however, when the Idaho National Laboratory proved, via the  Aurora Generator Test, that a digital attack could be used to destroy physical objects, in this case a generator.

The Stuxnet malware attack took place in 2010, which proved that malware could impact the physical world.

Since then there has been a steady stream of stories: in 2013 the NSA said it had stopped a plot by an unnamed nation, believed to be China, to attack the BIOS chip in PCs, rendering them unusable.

In 2014 there was the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, blamed by many on North Korea, which showed that it was not just government systems and data that could be targeted by state-backed hackers.

Perhaps most seriously, just before Christmas in 2015 hackers managed to disrupt the power supply in  parts of Ukraine, by using a well-known Trojan called BlackEnergy. In March 2016 seven Iranian hackers were accused of trying to shut down a New York dam in a federal grand jury indictment.

Nations are rapidly building cyber defence and offence capabilities and NATO in 2014 took the important step of confirming that a cyberattack on one of its members would be enough to allow them to  invoke Article 5, the collective defence mechanism at the heart of the alliance.
 
In 2016/17 it then defined cyber-space as an "operational domain", an area in which conflict can occur: the Internet had officially become a battlefield.

ZDNet:

You Might Also Read:

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War:

Stuxnet, Secrecy & The New Era of Cyber War:

Son Of Stuxnet: Irongate Malware:

 

 

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