Warning over malicious computer worm

Joseph Menn and Mary Watkins

Financial Times

A piece of highly sophisticated malicious software that has infected an unknown number of power plants, pipelines and factories over the past year is the first program designed to cause serious damage in the physical world, security experts are warning.

The Stuxnet computer worm spreads through previously unknown holes in Microsoft’s Windows operating system and then looks for a type of software made by Siemens and used to control industrial components, including valves and brakes.

Stuxnet can hide itself, wait for certain conditions and give new orders to the components that reverse what they would normally do, the experts said. The commands are so specific that they appear aimed at an industrial sector, but officials do not know which one or what the affected equipment would do.

While cyber attacks on computer networks have slowed or stopped communication in countries such as Estonia and Georgia, Stuxnet is the first aimed at physical destruction and it heralds a new era in cyberwar.

At a closed-door conference this week in Maryland, Ralph Langner, a German industrial controls safety expert, said Stuxnet might be targeting not a sector but perhaps only one plant, and he speculated that it could be a controversial nuclear facility in Iran.

According to Symantec, which has been investigating the virus and plans to publish details of the rogue commands on Wednesday, Iran has had far more infections than any other country.

“It is not speculation that this is the first directed cyber weapon”, or one aimed at a specific real-world process, said Joe Weiss, a US expert who has testified to Congress on technological security threats to the electric grid and other physical operations. “The only speculation is what it is being used against, and by whom.”

Experts say Stuxnet’s knowledge of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, the Siemens program and the associated hardware of the target industry make it the work of a well-financed, highly organised team.   

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