A powerful new computer worm apparently is capable of causing power plants or pipelines to blow up. It's a cyber superweapon called Stuxnet. Experts suspect it was designed to disable nuclear facilities in Iran, but Stuxnet could have consequences its creators did not anticipate.
When cybersecurity experts get together, they usually talk about such things as the latest techniques in credit card fraud. But the big session at the Virus Bulletin conference Thursday in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was one called "Stuxnet: An In-Depth Look." It was arranged by the Symantec company, whose researchers have been analyzing the computer worm for several weeks.
Eric Chien, technical director at Symantec's Security Response Unit, says he and his colleagues have been stunned by what they've found.
"I've been dealing with malicious code threats for 15 to 20 years now, I've seen every large sort of outbreak, and we've never seen anything like this," Chien says. "It's fundamentally changed our job, to be honest."
That's because studying a computer worm designed to sabotage a power plant or gas refinery is a far cry from thinking about some virus engineered by a lone hacker.
"It changes the urgency at which we have to analyze these threats and understand them and make sure that people who are affected know they are affected and how to get themselves cleaned up," Chien says.
The Symantec researchers say the Stuxnet worm was designed by a well-funded, well-organized group, perhaps affiliated with a government. They're convinced it was meant to target facilities in Iran. The worm was apparently designed to penetrate and take over the computerized control system used in nuclear plants there.
But it's becoming clear that the repercussions may go far beyond Iran.
"Now that it's released, numerous other people will take that and go, 'aha,' " says Stephen Spoonamore, a veteran cybersecurity consultant who has spent years pursuing hackers. He thinks some other group may now be able to take the Stuxnet computer code and modify it slightly to create its own cyber superweapon.
Symantec's Chien is not sure it will be all that easy. But if nothing else, he says, other cyberwarriors are likely to be inspired by what Stuxnet has been able to do.
"People have been talking about this in theory for a long time, and we've had movies that have demonstrated this kind of thing, but it's never been done," Chien says. "And now, it's been done."
The Stuxnet story raises the question of what the consequences of using a cyberweapon might be. Maybe Pandora's box has been opened — this weapon, or one modeled after it, could soon come back in even more dangerous form. Security experts call this "blowback."
Some experts are convinced the Israeli government developed and used the Stuxnet worm as a weapon, to disable a nuclear plant in Iran.
After all, hitting the nuclear plant with a 500-pound bomb would have produced far more collateral damage than attacking it with a cyberweapon, right?
Spoonamore is not so sure. "Compared to releasing code that controls most of the world's hydroelectric dams or many of the world's nuclear plants or many of the world's electrical switching stations? I can think of very few stupider blowback decisions," he says.
Here's the situation: Even as U.S. and other Western cybersecurity officers scramble to find new ways to protect industrial facilities from a Stuxnet-like attack, their governments in all likelihood have their own people developing new cyberweapons that are not unlike the Stuxnet worm.
Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, speaking Thursday night about U.S. cyberwar plans at a meeting in New York, said he did not know where Stuxnet came from. Asked about the U.S. military's own offensive cyber-arsenal, Lynn refused to comment.
A cyber professional who has worked on both sides says the offensive and defensive players bring different mindsets to their work: Those on the offensive side tend to focus more narrowly on the accomplishment of their war-fighting mission and may not pay as much attention to the wider consequences.