Computer security experts are often surprised at which stories get picked up by the mainstream media. Sometimes it makes no sense. Why this particular data breach, vulnerability, or worm and not others? Sometimes it’s obvious. In the case of Stuxnet, there’s a great story.
As the story goes, the Stuxnet worm was designed and released by a government—the U.S. and Israel are the most common suspects—specifically to attack the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. How could anyone not report that? It combines computer attacks, nuclear power, spy agencies and a country that’s a pariah to much of the world. The only problem with the story is that it’s almost entirely speculation.
Here’s what we do know: Stuxnet is an Internet worm that infects Windows computers. It primarily spreads via USB sticks, which allows it to get into computers and networks not normally connected to the Internet. Once inside a network, it uses a variety of mechanisms to propagate to other machines within that network and gain privilege once it has infected those machines. These mechanisms include both known and patched vulnerabilities, and four “zero-day exploits”: vulnerabilities that were unknown and unpatched when the worm was released. (All the infection vulnerabilities have since been patched.)
Stuxnet doesn’t actually do anything on those infected Windows computers, because they’re not the real target. What Stuxnet looks for is a particular model of Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) made by Siemens (the press often refers to these as SCADA systems, which is technically incorrect). These are small embedded industrial control systems that run all sorts of automated processes: on factory floors, in chemical plants, in oil refineries, at pipelines—and, yes, in nuclear power plants. These PLCs are often controlled by computers, and Stuxnet looks for Siemens SIMATIC WinCC/Step 7 controller software.
If it doesn’t find one, it does nothing. If it does, it infects it using yet another unknown and unpatched vulnerability, this one in the controller software. Then it reads and changes particular bits of data in the controlled PLCs. It’s impossible to predict the effects of this without knowing what the PLC is doing and how it is programmed, and that programming can be unique based on the application. But the changes are very specific, leading many to believe that Stuxnet is targeting a specific PLC, or a specific group of PLCs, performing a specific function in a specific location—and that Stuxnet’s authors knew exactly what they were targeting.
It’s already infected more than 50,000 Windows computers, and Siemens has reported 14 infected control systems, many in Germany. (These numbers were certainly out of date as soon as I typed them.) We don’t know of any physical damage Stuxnet has caused, although there are rumors that it was responsible for the failure of India’s INSAT-4B satellite in July. We believe that it did infect the Bushehr plant.
All the anti-virus programs detect and remove Stuxnet from Windows systems.
Stuxnet was first discovered in late June, although there’s speculation that it was released a year earlier. As worms go, it’s very complex and got more complex over time. In addition to the multiple vulnerabilities that it exploits, it installs its own driver into Windows. These have to be signed, of course, but Stuxnet used a stolen legitimate certificate. Interestingly, the stolen certificate was revoked on July 16, and a Stuxnet variant with a different stolen certificate was discovered on July 17.
Over time the attackers swapped out modules that didn’t work and replaced them with new ones—perhaps as Stuxnet made its way to its intended target. Those certificates first appeared in January. USB propagation, in March.
Stuxnet has two ways to update itself. It checks back to two control servers, one in Malaysia and the other in Denmark, but also uses a peer-to-peer update system: When two Stuxnet infections encounter each other, they compare versions and make sure they both have the most recent one. It also has a kill date of June 24, 2012. On that date, the worm will stop spreading and delete itself.
We don’t know who wrote Stuxnet. We don’t know why. We don’t know what the target is, or if Stuxnet reached it. But you can see why there is so much speculation that it was created by a government.
Stuxnet doesn’t act like a criminal worm. It doesn’t spread indiscriminately. It doesn’t steal credit card information or account login credentials. It doesn’t herd infected computers into a botnet. It uses multiple zero-day vulnerabilities. A criminal group would be smarter to create different worm variants and use one in each. Stuxnet performs sabotage. It doesn’t threaten sabotage, like a criminal organization intent on extortion might.
Stuxnet was expensive to create. Estimates are that it took 8 to 10 people six months to write. There’s also the lab setup—surely any organization that goes to all this trouble would test the thing before releasing it—and the intelligence gathering to know exactly how to target it. Additionally, zero-day exploits are valuable. They’re hard to find, and they can only be used once. Whoever wrote Stuxnet was willing to spend a lot of money to ensure that whatever job it was intended to do would be done.
None of this points to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, though. Best I can tell, this rumor was started by Ralph Langner, a security researcher from Germany. He labeled his theory “highly speculative,” and based it primarily on the facts that Iran had an unusually high number of infections (the rumor that it had the most infections of any country seems not to be true), that the Bushehr nuclear plant is a juicy target, and that some of the other countries with high infection rates—India, Indonesia, and Pakistan—are countries where the same Russian contractor involved in Bushehr is also involved. This rumor moved into the computer press and then into the mainstream press, where it became the accepted story, without any of the original caveats.
Once a theory takes hold, though, it’s easy to find more evidence. The word “myrtus” appears in the worm: an artifact that the compiler left, possibly by accident. That’s the myrtle plant. Of course, that doesn’t mean that druids wrote Stuxnet. According to the story, it refers to Queen Esther, also known as Hadassah; she saved the Persian Jews from genocide in the 4th century B.C. “Hadassah” means “myrtle” in Hebrew.
Stuxnet also sets a registry value of “19790509” to alert new copies of Stuxnet that the computer has already been infected. It’s rather obviously a date, but instead of looking at the gazillion things—large and small—that happened on that the date, the story insists it refers to the date Persian Jew Habib Elghanain was executed in Tehran for spying for Israel.
Sure, these markers could point to Israel as the author. On the other hand, Stuxnet’s authors were uncommonly thorough about not leaving clues in their code; the markers could have been deliberately planted by someone who wanted to frame Israel. Or they could have been deliberately planted by Israel, who wanted us to think they were planted by someone who wanted to frame Israel. Once you start walking down this road, it’s impossible to know when to stop.
Another number found in Stuxnet is 0xDEADF007. Perhaps that means “Dead Fool” or “Dead Foot,” a term that refers to an airplane engine failure. Perhaps this means Stuxnet is trying to cause the targeted system to fail. Or perhaps not. Still, a targeted worm designed to cause a specific sabotage seems to be the most likely explanation.
If that’s the case, why is Stuxnet so sloppily targeted? Why doesn’t Stuxnet erase itself when it realizes it’s not in the targeted network? When it infects a network via USB stick, it’s supposed to only spread to three additional computers and to erase itself after 21 days—but it doesn’t do that. A mistake in programming, or a feature in the code not enabled? Maybe we’re not supposed to reverse engineer the target. By allowing Stuxnet to spread globally, its authors committed collateral damage worldwide. From a foreign policy perspective, that seems dumb. But maybe Stuxnet’s authors didn’t care.
My guess is that Stuxnet’s authors, and its target, will forever remain a mystery.
This essay originally appeared on Forbes.com.
My alternate explanations for Stuxnet were cut from the essay. Here they are:
- A research project that got out of control. Researchers have accidentally released worms before. But given the press, and the fact that any researcher working on something like this would be talking to friends, colleagues, and his advisor, I would expect someone to have outed him by now, especially if it was done by a team.
- A criminal worm designed to demonstrate a capability. Sure, that’s possible. Stuxnet could be a prelude to extortion. But I think a cheaper demonstration would be just as effective. Then again, maybe not.
- A message. It’s hard to speculate any further, because we don’t know who the message is for, or its context. Presumably the intended recipient would know. Maybe it’s a “look what we can do” message. Or an “if you don’t listen to us, we’ll do worse next time” message. Again, it’s a very expensive message, but maybe one of the pieces of the message is “we have so many resources that we can burn four or five man-years of effort and four zero-day vulnerabilities just for the fun of it.” If that message were for me, I’d be impressed.
- A worm released by the U.S. military to scare the government into giving it more budget and power over cybersecurity. Nah, that sort of conspiracy is much more common in fiction than in real life.
Note that some of these alternate explanations overlap.
EDITED TO ADD (10/7): Symantec published a very detailed analysis. It seems like one of the zero-day vulnerabilities wasn’t a zero-day after all. Good CNet article. More speculation, without any evidence. Decent debunking. Alternate theory, that the target was the uranium centrifuges in Natanz, Iran.