Stuxnet: How USA and Israel created anti-Iran virus, and then lost control of it

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Malware

There is a simply fascinating report in today's New York Times describing how the Stuxnet virus was created by the USA to target an Iranian nuclear facility, but accidentally escaped into the wider world.

New York Times article

The report comes from David E. Sanger, the Chief Washington correspondent at The New York Times and author of the upcoming book "Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power".

Here is a quick summary of the claims made in the report:

  • Feeling threatened by the possibility that Iran would enrich uranium at a nuclear facility at Natanz that could be used to create weapons of mass destruction, US President George W Bush initiated a plan to seize control of computer systems at the plant.
  • The first part of the plan (dubbed "Olympic Games") was to embed spying code that would send back information about the computer systems' operations and draw up a blueprint of how the computers controlled centrifuges at the plant.
  • After months of waiting for the information to be relayed, the National Security (NSA) and Israeli computer experts created a worm (Stuxnet) that would allow them to attack from within the plant.
  • According to the report, the USA felt compelled to involve Israel in the plan to prevent the country launching a pre-emptive military strike of their own against the nuclear facility.
  • The USA secretly built a replica of Natanz's computer systems, including centrifuges handed over by Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in 2003, to test their malware.
  • The White House

  • Tests were successful, and the worm's orders to slow down and speed up the centrifuge's delicate parts caused them to suffer damage. At one point, it's said that debris from a damaged centrifuge was laid across the conference table at the White House's Situation Room to demonstrate the malware's potential power.
  • With the malware deemed ready, it was introduced into the Natanz plant via infected USB memory sticks by spies and unwitting workers with physical access to computer systems.
  • As centrifuges failed, Iranian workers would close down the systems looking for signs of sabotage - not realising that their computer systems were compromised.
  • Days before Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President, George Bush successfully urged him to continue the classified "Olympic Games" program.
  • The attacks on the nuclear plant's systems continued, but potential disaster struck in mid-2010, when it became clear that "an error in the code" had allowed Stuxnet to spread beyond Natanz's systems and infect computers in the outside world.

David Sanger says his account of the American and Israeli attempt to undermine Iran's nuclear program with malware is based upon interviews with current and former officials who were involved in the operation. None of them have allowed their names to be published.

We've reported before on how US defence chiefs have squirmed when quizzed about whether America was responsible for writing Stuxnet, and according to Sanger the operation remains highly classified.

One thing seems certain. Stuxnet is old news. Even the recently discovered (and much hyped) Flame malware isn't an effective weapon today. There seems little doubt that state-sponsored cyberweapons (if that is indeed what Stuxnet was) continue to be developed - and chances are that it's not just the USA and Israel who are developing them but other developed countries.

Read the full story on the New York Times website. It certainly makes for fascinating reading.

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13 Responses to Stuxnet: How USA and Israel created anti-Iran virus, and then lost control of it

  1. kereith foster · 822 days ago

    Sounds like a good idea for a film. They could expand on the idea and have a computer system that attempts to wipe out the human race, hang on that sounds familar - Terminator and skynet.

    • Internaut · 818 days ago

      Long before Skynet, Colossus (1966) is a science fiction novel by British author Dennis Feltham Jones, about super-computers that merge and control the people.

      I guess the author Jones, was considering only computers, and not politicians.

    • rick · 812 days ago

      In the TV show Stargate SG-1, there was an episode where a SG government scientist created a virus that would shut down a gate. Unfortunately the gate replicated the virus and the evil system lord Baal rewrote the virus to shut down ALL the gates.

      This is a good example of the dangers of state sponsored cyberwarfare. If one copy leaks out, your enemy can rewrite it to make it better.

  2. searbet · 822 days ago

    This is an old article but for fascinating reading on Stuxnet see:
    http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/how-digi...

  3. Paul · 822 days ago

    Read the article at http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/how-digi... . It was excellent but it comes across as a kind of a tell all about the evil government empire of the USA. It would be nice at some point to see an article on exhaustive efforts taken to identify, definitively, hackers from Russia and China who's efforts to steal industrial/government/technological secrets vital to our way of life and well-being. Would there be those who would say I am being paranoid. I say if there is somebody in our government who delayed delivery of nuclear weapons into the hands of Iranians for any length of time let me send my tax deductible donation for their support.

  4. Teqx · 822 days ago

    Government created virus accidentally gets loose and infects outside world....if we can't learn from history, can we at least learn from hollywood?........I've totally seen this movie already.

  5. Curious · 822 days ago

    I wonder which "other developed countries" (not just the USA and Israel) are developing cyber weapons?
    See http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/may/30/military...

    • Internaut · 818 days ago

      Don't forget the individuals who have no relationship with any government. Anonymous, and others.

  6. Bedridden Abdul Al Barten · 822 days ago

    This was a tactical weapon, the problem is with the Strategic ones. Customs clearance systems disablement could cut off a governments revenue streams. Interfering with the banking system by introducing more of a countries currency into the world system would reduce it purchasing power. Imagine if the loading country of an international shipping hub was under Cyber attack who would know what was in each container on a 15,000 TEU ship.

    Further commercial disruption possibilities are endless.

    Von Clauswitz defined the use of force as changing the political opinion of an opponent not destroying them.

    International treaties to forbid or limit Cyber weapons are essential as "We live in an age of proliferating information and shrinking sense."(Jean Baudrillard)

    So sorry if am rambling on a bit

  7. Goalsaver · 822 days ago

    It's a certainty that it's not just the US and Israell developing cyber weapons.

  8. kafantaris · 822 days ago

    Only four countries had the technical know-how to develop the Flame virus: "Israel, the U.S., China and Russia."
    Since the virus was obviously intended for Iran, we can eliminate its friends China and Russia.
    This leaves only Israel and us.
    Having thoroughly demonized Iran, anything we do to it has become fair game.
    But there is nothing fair or right about taking another country's data. Certainly we would not want China or Russia taking our data and spreading it to 80 separate servers.
    As a leader of the world community aspiring for governance through universal fairness, we can no longer afford to follow the beaten path of expediency chosen by Israel. Doing so will not only deprive us of our moral authority, but will also squander our unique opportunity to fashion a more just and fair world.

  9. Guest · 820 days ago

    "As a leader of the world community aspiring for governance through universal fairness..."

    SERIOUSLY?

  10. Paul · 818 days ago

    Curious…… This is potentially the MAD (Mutually Assured Distruction) that kept us in balance with other folks intent on world domination from 1918-1991. Yes , I think so.

    Bedridden…. And I don’t really know how you run MAD with countries that are less affected or groups that operate outside of governments or countries. And it could be ultimately possible that a theocratic group not directly attackable could acquire enough knowledge and access to develop strategic software ‘weapon’.

    Further, International treaties would have little effect of individuals and groups outside of sovereign nations unless the ‘bite’ or consequences are extensive. Such an example might be, if we were to definitively locate the source of a strategic threat that signatory countries deliver the bad guys for criminal prosecution. Yeah, that means our guys too. And some year, everyone will give up ALL nuclear arms because we are ALL good people with good motives and intents toward our fellow man, whatever his beliefs may be.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.