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Stuxnet malware is 'weapon' out to destroy ... Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant?

The Stuxnet malware has infiltrated industrial computer systems worldwide. Now, cyber security sleuths say it's a search-and-destroy weapon meant to hit a single target. One expert suggests it may be after Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

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"Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an industrial process in the physical world," says Langner, who last week became the first to publicly detail Stuxnet's destructive purpose and its authors' malicious intent. "This is not about espionage, as some have said. This is a 100 percent sabotage attack."

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A guided cyber missile

On his website, Langner lays out the Stuxnet code he has dissected. He shows step by step how Stuxnet operates as a guided cyber missile. Three top US industrial control system security experts, each of whom has also independently reverse-engineered portions of Stuxnet, confirmed his findings to the Monitor.

"His technical analysis is good," says a senior US researcher who has analyzed Stuxnet, who asked for anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the press. "We're also tearing [Stuxnet] apart and are seeing some of the same things."

Other experts who have not themselves reverse-engineered Stuxnet but are familiar with the findings of those who have concur with Langner's analysis.

"What we're seeing with Stuxnet is the first view of something new that doesn't need outside guidance by a human – but can still take control of your infrastructure," says Michael Assante, former chief of industrial control systems cyber security research at the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory. "This is the first direct example of weaponized software, highly customized and designed to find a particular target."

"I'd agree with the classification of this as a weapon," Jonathan Pollet, CEO of Red Tiger Security and an industrial control system security expert, says in an e-mail.

One researcher's findings

Langner's research, outlined on his website Monday, reveals a key step in the Stuxnet attack that other researchers agree illustrates its destructive purpose. That step, which Langner calls "fingerprinting," qualifies Stuxnet as a targeted weapon, he says.

Langner zeroes in on Stuxnet's ability to "fingerprint" the computer system it infiltrates to determine whether it is the precise machine the attack-ware is looking to destroy. If not, it leaves the industrial computer alone. It is this digital fingerprinting of the control systems that shows Stuxnet to be not spyware, but rather attackware meant to destroy, Langner says.

Stuxnet's ability to autonomously and without human assistance discriminate among industrial computer systems is telling. It means, says Langner, that it is looking for one specific place and time to attack one specific factory or power plant in the entire world.

"Stuxnet is the key for a very specific lock – in fact, there is only one lock in the world that it will open," Langner says in an interview. "The whole attack is not at all about stealing data but about manipulation of a specific industrial process at a specific moment in time. This is not generic. It is about destroying that process."

So far, Stuxnet has infected at least 45,000 computers worldwide, Microsoft reported last month. Only a few are industrial control systems. Siemens this month reported 14 affected control systems, mostly in processing plants and none in critical infrastructure. Some victims in North America have experienced some serious computer problems, Eric Byres, an expert in Canada, told the Monitor. Most of the victim computers, however, are in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. Some systems have been hit in Germany, Canada, and the US, too. Once a system is infected, Stuxnet simply sits and waits – checking every five seconds to see if its exact parameters are met on the system. When they are, Stuxnet is programmed to activate a sequence that will cause the industrial process to self-destruct, Langner says. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misstated the number of industrial control systems reportedly infected by Stuxnet.]

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