Stuxnet worm deemed 'best malware ever'

The highly sophisticated malware known as the Stuxnet worm operated undetected for nearly six months while carrying out its stealth attack on utility infrastructure around the globe. Read about how it was brought to bay.

In January 2010, a highly targeted, vendor-specific cyberattack was launched by those yet to be identified. The Stuxnet worm was highly sophisticated — perhaps the most sophisticated attack that is known to the public thus far, leading some in the field to proclaim the piece of code the best malware ever. The fact that this piece of malware operated undetected for nearly six months seems to supports those claims.

Although the attacker is unknown, many individuals and entities believe Israel is behind the attack and that the United States was probably an active participant.

The worm used not one but four unpatched zero-day vulnerabilities, as well as other vulnerabilities that had patches available. Its designers intentionally limited the worm’s spread, which allowed it to go undetected for an extended period of time. Each infected machine could only pass the worm to three additional machines.

The malware made use of two stolen digitally signed certificates that allowed the worm to avoid detection by security software.

The worm was designed to attack machines using WinCC (Windows Control Center) and Siemens SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) visualization system and connected to industrial programmable logic controllers. PLCs are used to control multiple types of processes commonly found at industrial plants, energy/utility complexes, water treatment facilities, critical infrastructures, and numerous other functional areas.

Stuxnet also uploaded its own encrypted software to the PLCs. At this time, it is unknown what that encrypted software does. But multiple experts have speculated that it could open a backdoor for attackers to use whenever they want to steal data files, delete files or change data. However, the biggest concern is that the attackers could execute control processes (for example, close valves or shut off output systems) that would interfere with or disrupt critical operations of industrial complexes.

The worm clearly targeted Iranian facilities, with nearly 60 percent of the system compromises occurring in that country. However, industrial controllers in India and the United States were also hit by the attack.

Some experts believe the ongoing system problems at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant indicate that it might have been the primary target.

As of Sept. 20, the worm had compromised approximately 100,000 systems worldwide. Its primary mission is intelligence gathering and industrial sabotage, and its secondary mission is process disruption with any number of tertiary effects. The situation was remedied in August by Microsoft.

The complexity and sophistication of the attack, as well as its target being PLCs, would seem to point to a nation state-backed group or possibly cyber terrorists. Researchers at Kaspersky Lab and Symantec said they have never seen a piece of malware use that many avenues of attack.

The industrial control system industry is a high-value target. This cyberattack prompted Joe Weiss, an industrial control and security expert, to alert several members of Congress and other U.S. government officials. He was pushing for emergency powers to be given to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission so that it could require that utilities and others involved in providing critical infrastructure take extra precautions to secure their systems. In March 2009, Weiss testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and said networks that power industrial control systems have been breached more than 125 times. He went on to say, "The impacts have ranged from trivial to significant environmental damage to significant equipment damage to deaths." One of the 125 breaches resulted in U.S. deaths.

Earlier this year, more than three-quarters of executives working for organizations that use SCADA or industrial control systems say their systems are connected to the Internet or some other IP network, putting them at possible risk of intrusion. Approximately 55 percent of survey respondents in the energy and power sectors and the oil and gas sectors reported that cyberattackers most often targeted SCADA or other operational control systems.

What about the private sector, which owns about 85 percent of our nation's critical infrastructure? What is being done there? Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who chaired a subcommittee on cybersecurity, called representatives of the nation's electric utilities, which are heavy users of SCADA systems, to Washington to find out what they were doing to fix the power grid’s vulnerabilities. The committee was told that the problem was being addressed, but that turned out not to be the case. At a subsequent hearing seven months later, Langevin's committee members discovered that almost nothing had been done. "Basically, they lied to Congress, and I was outraged," Langevin told Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes."

The United States is the most connected country in the world and the country that is the most reliant on computers, networks and related devices.These two facts make us the most susceptible to a cyberattack. What has to happen before the government, business community, law enforcement, intelligence community and military come together to address this critical deficiency in our nation’s defenses? Maybe some of President Obama’s rumored “second stimulus package” funds can be allocated to defending our nation’s critical infrastructure.

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