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Cyber collateral damage

October 04, 2010

In wartime, innocent people are often killed or displaced by the combat: a civilian’s house is bombed or a child finds a landmine. The same situation is already being faced by control system users as cyber wars take place in our world.

As more information on the Stuxnet worm emerges, it seems to be a cyber weapon that was very carefully designed and directed against Iranian nuclear facilities. It may have originated in Israel or even the U.S., but wherever it came from, it represents an amazingly clever bit of work. We may never know how effective it was and may continue to be against its intended target, or even necessarily what that target was. However some innocent bystanders may also be injured as a result of the attacks, and every industrial system user should note its lessons.

First, it reinforces the most basic concepts of cyber security. As clever as it is, Stuxnet still depends on sloppy human practices to proliferate. A company that has good defensive systems and is disciplined should not find it a threat.

Second, it reminds us that even (apparently) isolated systems can be threatened. Some may not be as isolated as we think, and even those that are can still be compromised by sloppy people.

The real collateral damage in this case is suffered by the companies that are not targets but own affected systems, and by Siemens. As creator of WinCC, Siemens had to create a defense against Stuxnet, a process that has undoubtedly been very costly in resources and threats to ongoing business. Its reputation has been at stake through all this, and it had to find a way to defuse the bomb that somebody else turned loose. Other companies that build such control systems should take note, because they could find themselves in similar situations. Users should hope that their supplier is willing to attack the problem with the same ferocity and resources as Siemens.