A major computer virus attack has spread to the Windows computers at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, according to the Telegraph. However, the project manager at Bushehr said that the major systems at the plant have not been damaged.
Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant
Stuxnet is not an ordinary, garden variety computer virus, like the ones that erase your hard drives, steal your bank accounts, or send your browsers to porn sites.
In fact, experts aren’t completely sure what it is, or what it’s trying to do. One thing they’re sure of: This virus wasn’t concocted by some hacker sitting at a computer in his basement. This virus MUST have been created by some government or government-level group, using a well-financed highly organized team of programmers, with access to plenty of specialized resources.
This conclusion is reached because of the complexity and large numbers of components in the virus, and because it makes use of stolen encryption certificates and secret technical information that would be available only to high-level intelligence agencies.
Thus, it appears that Stuxnet was designed by one nation to target facilities in another nation, as a kind of guided missile. It’s not known which two nations are involved, but the unconfirmed speculation is that the virus was designed by Israel to target Iran.
Here’s what is known. Stuxnet has spread virally, around the world. And like any ordinary virus, it installs itself in Windows computers as a so-called “rootkit.” Once a virus gets installed in that way, it can do pretty much anything it wants to your computer, and is completely invisible to the computer operator. But Stuxnet doesn’t harm most computers.
Stuxnet then searches your computer for a certain kind of software — industrial control software (ICS) that’s used in pipelines or factories or chemical or power plants, according to Symantec.
If this kind of ICS software is on your computer, it then looks to see what kind of factory or plant the software is controlling.
Large factories and plants of this kind are generally not controlled directly by Windows computers. Instead, each device in the plant has its own computer that runs a special kind of software program known as a “programmable logic controller” (PLC). So, the Stuxnet virus looks for Windows software that’s communicating with a device running a PLC — specifically, certain kinds of PLCs made by the giant German company Siemens AG.
Finally, once the virus identifies the right kind of factory or plant, it installs yet another virus into the plant’s PLC software. From that point on, the attacker can invisibly control the entire plant or factory.
Whether the target is Bushehr is just a guess. Experts have attempted to reverse engineer the virus to determine what it’s doing, but these attempts have been only partially successful. All that’s known is that the virus is targeting one or more factories or power plants or pipelines or similar installations that satisfy certain unknown parameters.
Once it finds its target (or targets), it’s expected to issue a series of commands that will destroy the plant, according to PC World. This might happen, for example, by making the plant overheat, by making crucial machinery suddenly spin rapidly out of control, or by making dangerous chemicals get dispersed.
The larger picture here is that this is a new kind of warfare — cyber warfare — that will become increasingly prevalent. The military is now treating cyber as the “fifth domain,” after the other domains — land, sea, air and space. The bad news is that very few people in the U.S. military are trained to deal with this kind of warfare, but the good news is that the same is true of other countries.
So expect to see stories of this type more frequently. Inasmuch as a virus of this type can effectively destroy an entire factory or power plant, the results could be as spectacular as the detonation of a bomb. And there would be no trace of the bomber, or any way to find out who it is. There may yet be such an outcome from the Stuxnet virus. No one knows.
For the individual Windows computer user, there are a few lessons to be learned here. First, make sure that you subscribe to a computer anti-virus service. Second, make sure that you turn on the option that automatically installs all the regular Windows updates from Microsoft. The Stuxnet virus is able to infect computers because of vulnerabilities in Windows software that the automatic updates are now repairing.