Attack has since spread to plants and computers in the U.S. and elsewhere, posing serious threat
It’s been only a month since the activation of Iran’s first nuclear power plant and there’s already a major crisis concerning proliferation. But this crisis has nothing to do with nuclear arms proliferation. Rather, the scare has to do with the proliferation of the Stuxnet worm, a malicious computer program that has invaded the plant’s computers and since spread to computers worldwide.
The viral program is very sophisticated and appears designed specifically to attack the plant. It first was released onto workers’ computers, designed to try to reach plant’s control systems. Unlike other more sophisticated attacks which appeared to be primarily geared for monitoring, this attack was designed to do damage. It contained logic to sabotage nuclear fuel enrichment centrifuges. The centrifuges, made by German equipment electronics giant Siemens, would be made to fail in a virtually unnoticeable way.
The Bushehr plant is located near Natanz, central-Iranian city located almost 200 miles south of the capital city of Tehran. The plant is a joint endeavor between Iran and Russia. While the U.S. and others have chastised Russia for its involvement, the U.S. intelligence community has asserted that it doesn’t believe Iran to be currently developing nuclear weapons at the facility.
Mahmoud Jafari, project manager at the Bushehr nuclear plant is quoted in The Telegraph, a UK newspaper, as stating that the viral worm never achieved its goal. Comments Mr. Jafari, “[It] has not caused any damage to major systems of the plant.”
But according to international whistle-blower site Wikileaks, a serious nuclear accident occurred at the plant sometime before mid-June. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, wrote:
Two weeks ago, a source associated with Iran’s nuclear program confidentially told WikiLeaks of a serious, recent, nuclear accident at Natanz. Natanz is the primary location of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
WikiLeaks had reason to believe the source was credible however contact with this source was lost.
WikiLeaks would not normally mention such an incident without additional confirmation, however according to Iranian media and the BBC, today the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, has resigned under mysterious circumstances. According to these reports, the resignation was tendered around 20 days ago.
Inspectors examined the claims, but found no distinguishable traces of an accident.
A time stamp on the virus reveals that it was made in January. What is equally remarkable to its sophistication in terms of attack behavior is the lack of sophistication when it comes to the worm’s proliferation.
If it had constrained its infections to Bushehr, it would likely not have been noticed for some time. Instead, the worm was extremely aggressive in its infection vectors, spreading to fifteen other Siemens plants, and tens of thousands of non-plant computers worldwide. In Iran 60,000 computers are infected. In Indonesia, 10,000 machines are infected. And in the United States thousands of computers are believed to be infected as well.
That creates a dangerous situation, as numerous parties, including international governments and black-hat hackers, are racing to reverse-engineer the code and exploit the infected machines. The infected machines may not only compromise personal details, but may compromise industrial infrastructure in Iran, Indonesia, India (another infection site), and the U.S.
Melissa Hathaway, a former United States national cybersecurity coordinator, comments, “Proliferation is a real problem, and no country is prepared to deal with it. All of these guys are scared to death. We have about 90 days to fix this before some hacker begins using it.”
So who is behind the attacks? The New York Times quotes a former U.S. intelligence office as saying that the attack was the work of Israel’s equivalent of America’s National Security Agency, known as Unit 8200. According to IEEE Spectrum‘s December issue, Israel had previously used a cyber-attack to shut off radar systems in Syria, allowing it to evaluate what it believed to be an under-construction nuclear reactor.
Regardless of who perpetrated the attack, the primary issue now is stamping it out, before it can be used for even more nefarious purposes. Early reports were unclear about the transmission vector, but suggested it may be spreading via USB sticks and other removable media.