Reuters reports a computer malware program known as Stuxnet has infected a large number of computers in Iran. According to CNET, the program is so sophisticated it is likely to have been produced by a state agency. Thus far there has been no way to track the authors of the worm nor determine which country with which it originated.
However in an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, security software company, Symantec states that “the Stuxnet computer worm, which has been described as one of the ‘most refined pieces of malware ever discovered,’ has been most active in Iran–leading some experts to conjecture that the likely target of the virus is the controversial Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and that it was created by Israeli hackers.”
Stuxnet works by exploiting the holes in Microsoft’s Windows operating system which affect the timing of automated processes in a factory. When timing such as tenths of a second in a nuclear power plant are critical for proper functioning, the computer virus’ insidious ability to seize control of operating systems becomes potentially disastrous.
Placement and Timing
Stuxnet has been attached to computers in Siemens-run installations that are connected to the Internet and using Microsoft Windows for their computer systems. Many sensitive areas had been run by closed computer systems not open to the rest of the world via telecommunications lines. But cost-cutting measures including using standard computer systems and Internet lines are making places such as nuclear reactors more vulnerable.
Around 60 percent of computers infected with Stuxnet are in Iran. Speculation is that these virus attacks may be aimed at Iran’s nuclear power installation that the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to build. The United States Army is aware of the situation and has been tracking the virus.
Threat to World Peace
So far, the Stuxnet virus has not threatened anyone. What can be of a further concern is that Stuxnet can cause systems to go haywire that could lead to radiation exposure or fatal explosions if a nuclear reaction goes out of control. If an installations’ security isn’t up to par then there could be mounting problems as the virus spreads even further. Siemens stated that the malware spreads through infected USB memory drives.
The Bushehr power plant in Iran hasn’t worked properly for months, which leads to speculation that many of the Siemens computers at that site have been infected although experts cannot be for certain. So far there have been less than three thousand computers in the United States infected with the virus as compared to over 60,000 in Iran.
This new threat to automated installations is a fear to many that believe sabotage can happen through computers from a long distance away. Some viruses may become sophisticated enough to allow a user to possibly take over some processes involving gas, oil, and nuclear energy installations.
If it’s true that the Stuxnet computer virus is the next generation of computer hacking then this may lead to a new wave of terrorism. The less sophisticated the computer system the more vulnerable a computer may be as compared to one with much more contemporary systems and updates. Cyber-terrorists could pose a threat to world peace if such malware is exploited in its full form.
Reuters, CNET, and the Guardian contributed information for this article.