Computer Worm Stuxnet Hits Nuclear Plant in Iran
Target: The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran
Cyber Warfare Launched Against Iran
In today’s Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2010), they indicated Iran acknowledged “… some computers of the Bushehr nuclear-power plant are infected with the Stuxnet worm. The facility’s Project Manager, Mahmoud Jafari told Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.” The N.Y. Times published a report about the Stuxnet virus which takes an interesting and slightly contrarian view of the power and lethality of the virus. But the most interesting part of the article was a list of other previous cyberattacks that were initiated by governments. Among them, John Markoff notes that Israel’s attack on the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor involved disabling that nation’s radar/anti-aircraft defenses. According to the reporter, the IDF’s Unit 8200 devised an ingenious method of shutting the radar off:
Accounts of the event initially indicated that sophisticated jamming technology had been used to blind the radar so Israeli aircraft went unnoticed. Last December, however, a report in an American technical publication, IEEE Spectrum, cited a European industry source as raising the possibility that the Israelis had used a built-in kill switch to shut down the radar .
A former member of the United States intelligence community said that the attack had been the work of Israel’s equivalent of America’s National Security Agency, known as Unit 8200.
Inside Israel, Unit 8200 is famous for its know-how and derring-do. But almost nothing is known or spoken about its operations. This is a very closely held military secret. Which is why Markoff’s report is so interesting.
Israel’s motive to shut down Iranian reactors is strongest and well-documented. The US has discouraged the open bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities even though Israel has already planned for such an eventuality. Therefore, a virus/ worm attack is the most sophisticated option. It’s efficient and far less noisy than a real bombing attack on an enemy’s nuclear facility. (Which Israel has carried out twice before). And there is no ‘collateral damage’ or footprints leading back to the attackers. What’s more Israel has often hinted that it will attack Iranian nuclear facilities if negotiations fail.
Ralph Langner is no Middle East policy wonk or former diplomat privy to insider information. He is a German software security engineer with a particular expertise in industrial control system software created by industrial giant Siemens for use in factories, refineries, and power plants worldwide.
This week, Mr. Langner became the first person to detail Stuxnet’s peculiar attack features. He explained, for example, how Stuxnet “fingerprints” each industrial network it infiltrates to determine if it has identified the right system to destroy. Stuxnet was developed to attack just one target in the world, Langner says and other experts confirm.
Stuxnet appears designed to take over centrifuges’ programmable logic controllers. Natanz has thousands of identical centrifuges and identical programmable logic controllers (PLCs), tiny computers for each centrifuge that oversee the centrifuge’s temperature, control valves, operating speed, and flow of cooling water. Stuxnet’s internal design would allow the malware to take over PLCs one after another, in a cookie-cutter fashion.
“It seems like the parts of Stuxnet dealing with PLCs have been designed to work on multiple nodes at once – which makes it fit well with a centrifuge plant like Natanz.
Educated guesses about what Stuxnet, described as the world’s first cyber guided missile, is programmed to destroy include the reactor for Iran’s new Bushehr nuclear power plant, as well as Iran’s nuclear fuel centrifuge plant in Natanz. Both facilities are part of Tehran’s nuclear program, which Iranian officials say is for peaceful purposes but that many other countries, including the United States, suspect are part of an atom-bombmaking apparatus.
An Iranian investrigator found that Stuxnet worm had infected 30,000 machines involved in running industrial control systems. The director of Iran’s Information Technology Council of Industries and Mines Ministry said, “An electronic war has been launched against Iran.”