Stuxnet Attacks Industrial Controllers

Viruses, worms, and other forms of malware have traditionally attacked software, inflicting damage only in the digital world. Stuxnet is the first major worm to cross from the digital world into the physical world to destroy physical objects and endanger lives. Stuxnet infects systems over the Internet or by inserting an infected flash drive. Once launched, the worm takes advantage of security holes in Microsoft Windows to scour all the computers on the network, searching for computers that control industrial processes. The worm can then manipulate the software, changing sensor controls, shutting down manufacturing, and issuing false instructions. In worst cases the worm could destroy gas pipelines, cause nuclear power plants to malfunction, cause industrial boilers to blow up, and even shut down a country’s power grid.

It is believed that Stuxnet has infected over 45,000 industrial control systems around the world. It is likely that many other systems are infected but the owners are unaware. There is some speculation that the worm may have been developed by a government agency as part of a cyber warfare initiative. One report suggests that the work may have been developed by the US or Israel to target Iranian nuclear plants.

The US’s new commander of the military’s cyberwarfare operations, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is concerned about such attacks on systems in the US. In a recent report he advocates the creation of a “separate, secure computer network to protect civilian government agencies and critical industries like the nation’s power grid against attacks mounted over the Internet.”

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