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Stuxnet as precision weapon

Cyber rifle-shot at Iran’s nuclear program emerges in greater detail, but who pulled the trigger?

January 18, 2011


Now that there’s been some time to investigate the Stuxnet story in greater detail, the message that this bit of malware was a weapon is emerging more clearly. There are still gaps in the narrative, but official statements recently say that it set Iran back by at least two years, mostly by running centrifuges out of control until they crashed. Moreover, Iran will have to replace much of its control equipment, or it can never be sure that all traces of the worm have been eradicated.

I got an email yesterday from someone who used to work for Siemens, that pointed me to a story in the NY Times on the same topic. It goes into much greater detail and says, for all practical purposes, that the U.S. and Israel created the worm to use on Iran. If you read well into the lengthy story, it takes us back to Siemens’ user group meeting in Chicago in July 2008, and brings up the fact that Siemens and Idaho National Labs did a session on cyber security and the vulnerabilities of control systems.

If you’re a big fan of conspiracy theories, the article would not stop you from thinking that just maybe Stuxnet’s designers got their idea from that session, and found the specific vulnerabilities they needed as a result of INL’s testing. Conclude what you will, but that idea seems pretty far-fetched. Siemens’ presentation was no different than you could hear at any number of user groups, and INL/CSSP has done testing on all sorts of industrial systems. Responsible people and organizations that discuss cyber security issues are universally dedicated to avoid publicizing specific vulnerabilities, and they do not glorify hackers. You could also find similar information in dozens of articles here at Control Engineering. (See below, or search on “cyber security.” You’ll have plenty to read.)

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that one practical moral of this story is that as sophisticated as Stuxnet is, some very simple technical and procedural precautions, that should be part of even the most basic cyber security program, would have protected you from all but the most determined and deliberate infiltration of your plant by someone bent on inserting this malware in your networks. And, if you feared that potential, Siemens did offer tools to make your systems more resistant to attack.

If you don’t have such precautions in place, it’s time to work on that before Stuxnet 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5…) makes its first appearance. How and when that might happen is anybody’s guess, except for the people who are creating it. Or maybe we should say creating them. I doubt there is only one in the works.

Also read Securing Legacy Control Systems.

Check out the Garrettcom Cyber Security eGuide for a collection of related articles.