Bits before bombs: How Stuxnet crippled Iran’s nuclear dreams

bits before bombs how stuxnet crippled irans nuclear dreams iranuranium

The future of warfare may have just begun, but rather than being heralded by an explosion, it began without a sound or a single casualty.

It is the first of its kind, and could be a signal of the ways all wars are fought from now on. It is a cyber weapon so precise that it can destroy a target more effectively than a conventional explosive, and then simply delete itself, leaving the victims left to blame themselves. It is a weapon that is so terrible that it could conceivably do more than just damage physical objects, it could kill ideas. It is the Stuxnet worm, dubbed by many as the world first real weapon of cyberwarfare, and its first target was Iran.

The dawn of cyberwarfare

Stuxnet is almost like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. Rather than sending in missiles to destroy a nuclear plant that threatens the entire region and the world, and is overseen by a president who has claimed that he would like to see an entire race of people “wiped off the map,” a simple computer virus can be introduced that will do the job far more effectively. To attack a structure with missiles can lead to war, and besides, buildings can be rebuilt. But to infect a system so completely that the people using it begin to doubt their faith in their own abilities will have far more devastating long-term effects.

In a rare moment of openness from Iran, the nation has confirmed that the Stuxnet malware (the name stems from keywords buried in the code) that was originally discovered in July, has damaged the country’s nuclear ambitions. Although Iran is downplaying the incident, some reports suggest that the worm was so effective, it may have set back the Iranian nuclear program by several years.

Rather than simply infect a system and destroy everything it touches, Stuxnet is far more sophisticated than that, and far more effective as well.

The worm is smart and adaptable. When it enters a new system, it remains dormant and learns the security system of the computer. Once it can operate without raising alarm, it then seeks out very specific targets and begins to attack certain systems. Rather than simply destroy its targets, it does something far more effective—it misleads them.

In a nuclear enrichment program, a centrifuge is a fundamental tool needed to refine the uranium. Each centrifuge built follows the same basic mechanics, but the German manufacturer Siemens offers what many consider to be the best in the industry. Stuxnet sought out the Siemens controllers and took command of the way the centrifuge spins. But rather than simply forcing the machines to spin until they destroyed themselves—which the worm was more than capable of doing—Stuxnet made subtle, and far more devious changes to the machines.

When a uranium sample was inserted into a Stuxnet-infected centrifuge for refinement, the virus would command the machine to spin faster than it was designed for, then suddenly stop. The results were thousands of machines that wore out years ahead of schedule, and more importantly, ruined samples. But the real trick of the virus was that while it was sabotaging the machinery, it would falsify the readings and make it appear as if everything was operating within the expected parameters.

After months of this, the centrifuges began to wear down and break, but as the readings still appeared to be within the norms, the scientists associated with the project began to second guess themselves. Iranian security agents began to investigate the failures, and the staff at the nuclear facilities lived under a cloud of fear and suspicion. This went on for over a year. If the virus had managed to completely avoid detection, it eventually would have deleted itself entirely and left the Iranians wondering what they were doing wrong.

For 17 months, the virus managed to quietly work its way into the Iranian systems, slowly destroying vital samples and damaging necessary equipment. Perhaps more than the damage to the machinery and the samples was the chaos the program was thrown into.

The Iranians grudgingly admit some of the damage

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has claimed that Stuxnet “managed to create problems for a limited number of our centrifuges,” which is a change from Iran’s earlier assertion that the worm had infected 30,000 computers, but had not affected the nuclear facilities. Some reports suggest at the Natanz facility, which houses the Iranian enrichment programs, 5,084 out of 8,856 centrifuges in use at the Iranian nuclear facilities were taken offline, possibly due to damage, and the plant has been forced to shut down at least twice due to the effects of the virus.

bits before bombs how stuxnet crippled irans nuclear dreams the face of program1

Stuxnet also targeted the Russian-made steam turbine that powers the Bushehr facility, but it appears that the virus was discovered before any real damage could be done. If the virus had not been uncovered, it would eventually have run the RPMs of the turbines too high and caused irreparable damage to the entire power plant. Temperature and cooling systems have also been identified as targets, but the results of the worm on these systems isn’t clear.

The discovery of the worm

In June of this year, the Belarus-based antivirus specialists, VirusBlokAda found a previously unknown malware program on the computer of an Iranian customer. After researching it, the antivirus company discovered that it was specifically designed to target Siemens SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) management systems, which are devices used in large-scale manufacturing. The first clue that something was different about this worm was that once the alert had been raised, every company that tried to pass on the alert was subsequently attacked and forced to shut down for at least 24 hours. The methods and reasons for the attacks are still a mystery.

Once the virus had been discovered, companies like Symantec and Kaspersky, two of the largest antivirus companies in the world, as well as several intelligence agencies, began to research Stuxnet, and found results that quickly made it obvious that this was no ordinary malware.

By the end of September, Symantec had discovered that nearly 60-percent of all the machines infected in the world were located in Iran. Once that had been discovered, it became more and more apparent that the virus was not designed simply to cause problems, as many pieces of malware are, but it had a very specific purpose and a target. The level of sophistication was also well above anything seen before, prompting Ralph Langner, the computer security expert who first discovered the virus, to declare that it was “like the arrival of an F-35 into a World War I battlefield”.

Gaming

Blizzard’s latest hiring spree is likely for the unannounced ‘Diablo 4’

Activision Blizzard is hiring for more than a dozen positions on unannounced Diablo projects. Some of the roles are likely for the unannounced Diablo 4, the next mainline entry in the series.
Computing

Hackers are scoring with ransomware that attacks its previous victims

Computer viruses are always evolving. In a new one, dubbed "Ryuk," hackers are targeting PCs with ransomware that scours an infected network in order to pinpoint and attack and enterprises with big money.
Computing

Pinning websites to your taskbar is as easy as following these quick steps

Would you like to know how to pin a website to the taskbar in Windows 10 in order to use browser links like apps? Whichever browser you're using, it's easier than you might think. Here's how to get it done.
Social Media

No yolk! A photo of an egg has become the most-liked post on Instagram

Until this weekend, the most-liked post on Instagram was of Kylie Jenner's baby daughter, which has around 18 million likes. It's now been knocked off the top spot not by a stunning sunset or even a cute cat, but by an egg.
Computing

Faster new PCIe 5.0 standard leapfrogs the best feature of AMD’s Ryzen 3

PCIe 5.0 will bring even faster data transfers, but it may only be found on HPCs and servers initially. The standard is four times faster than your current PC at transferring data, and new devices could appear later this year.
Deals

From Chromebooks to MacBooks, here are the best laptop deals for January 2019

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.
Product Review

LG Gram 14 proves 2-in-1 laptops don’t need to sacrifice battery for light weight

The LG Gram 14 2-in-1 aims to be very light for a laptop that converts to a tablet. And it is. But it doesn’t skimp on the battery, and so it lasts a very long time on a charge.
Computing

Keep your laptop battery in tip-top condition with these handy tips

Learn how to care for your laptop's battery, how it works, and what you can do to make sure yours last for years and retains its charge. Check out our handy guide for valuable tips, no matter what type of laptop you have.
Computing

Protect your expensive new laptop with the best Macbook cases

If you recently picked up a new MacBook, you’ll want something to protect its gorgeous exterior. Here, we've gathered the best MacBook cases and covers, whether you're looking for style or protection.
Computing

Watch out for these top-10 mistakes people make when buying a laptop

Buying a new laptop is exciting, but you need to watch your footing. There are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid and we're here to help. Check out these top-10 laptop buying mistakes and how to avoid them.
Computing

Don't spend a fortune on a PC. These are the best laptops under $300

Buying a laptop needn't mean spending a fortune. If you're just looking to browse the internet, answer emails, and watch Netflix, you can pick up a great laptop at a great price. These are the best laptops under $300.
Computing

Dell XPS 13 vs. Asus Zenbook 13: In battle of champions, who will be the victor?

The ZenBook 13 UX333 continues Asus's tradition of offering great budget-oriented 13-inch laptop offerings. Does this affordable machine offer enough value to compete with the excellent Dell XPS 13?
Gaming

Take a trip to a new virtual world with one of these awesome HTC Vive games

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Computing

The Asus ZenBook 13 offers more value and performance than Apple's MacBook Air

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the latest in that company's excellent "budget" laptop line, and it looks and feels better than ever. How does it compare to Apple's latest MacBook Air?
1 of 2