Unlike most malware, Stuxnet is not intended to help someone make money or steal proprietary data. Industrial control systems experts now have concluded, after nearly four months spent reverse engineering Stuxnet, that the world faces a new breed of malware that could become a template for attackers wishing to launch digital strikes at physical targets worldwide. Internet link not required.
"Until a few days ago, people did not believe a directed attack like this was possible," Ralph Langner, a German cyber-security researcher, told the Monitor in an interview. He was slated to present his findings at a conference of industrial control system security experts Tuesday in Rockville, Md. "What Stuxnet represents is a future in which people with the funds will be able to buy an attack like this on the black market. This is now a valid concern."
It is a realization that has emerged only gradually.
Stuxnet surfaced in June and, by July, was identified as a hypersophisticated piece of malware probably created by a team working for a nation state, say cyber security experts. Its name is derived from some of the filenames in the malware. It is the first malware known to target and infiltrate industrial supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software used to run chemical plants and factories as well as electric power plants and transmission systems worldwide. That much the experts discovered right away.
But what was the motive of the people who created it? Was Stuxnet intended to steal industrial secrets – pressure, temperature, valve, or other settings –and communicate that proprietary data over the Internet to cyber thieves?
By August, researchers had found something more disturbing: Stuxnet appeared to be able to take control of the automated factory control systems it had infected – and do whatever it was programmed to do with them. That was mischievous and dangerous.