Scot Finnie: Stuxnet was a wake-up call, but don't fall back asleep

Two U.S. presidents thought sophisticated cyberattacks on an Iranian uranium-enrichment plant were a better bet than alternatives that could lead to war. This isn't the place to debate the politics, but I do want to urge senior IT leaders to pay attention, not just to the

release of Stuxnet and its subsequent, unintended escape into the wild, but also to the potential for retaliation that could affect their organizations.

Speaking at a March 2011 TED conference, security consultant Ralph Langner said of the malware that we now know Israel and the U.S. released: "The payload was rocket science; it's way above everything that we have ever seen before."

In September 2010, Computerworld's Gregg Keizer described Stuxnet as a " 'groundbreaking' piece of malware so devious . . . [and] sophisticated . . . that the security researchers who tore it apart" believed it was the work of state-sponsored professionals. They were right.

The revelation that the U.S. and Israel were behind Stuxnet, as first reported June 1 in The New York Times, leaves us with troubling questions. Has the U.S. abandoned the moral high ground, inviting potential reprisals from around the world? Have the U.S. and Israel inadvertently delivered the most powerful cyberweapon ever devised to their foes? Should we now expect cyberattacks targeting business, government or infrastructure? And if so, what should organizations prepare for?

Stuxnet's payload was highly customized to a very specific target. The first step was the use of "beacon" malware inserted into Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment center, reportedly by Israeli agents. David E. Sanger, a reporter for the Times, broke the story of the U.S. and Israeli co-creation of Stuxnet. In his book Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, released on June 5, he reports how specific banks of centrifuges were targeted for disruption and damage through the manipulation of their Siemens controllers. The beacon software recorded the normal operation of the controllers and centrifuges, phoning that information home so the development team could focus on areas of vulnerability. Many phishing exploits employ the same technique, perhaps with less sophistication.

A version of Stuxnet is now available for download on the Internet. While it's unlikely that Stuxnet's payload will be directly harnessed and turned against U.S. interests, the history of cybercrime informs us that adaptation and copycatting are undoubtedly well under way.

Langner recently gave his opinion in the Times, writing: "While it has been said that Stuxnet was a wake-up call, the only people who woke up were military forces and intelligence services around the globe, along with some terrorists and criminals. Everybody else just fell back to coma, which is puzzling and depressing because protection against cyber weapons is possible." He goes on to argue that the most important threat comes not from nations but from cyberterrorists, against whom military deterrence is powerless.

Now that the world knows about the origins of Stuxnet (and about the origins of the apparently related Duqu and Flame cyber-espionage programs), it's time for U.S. businesses and infrastructure operators to wake up. Few, if any, are safe. The United States may be prepared to wage cyberwar, but it's clear we haven't even begun to prepare to defend against cyber-espionage and sabotage.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ScotFinnie).

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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