Stuxnet and You

There’s a new computer virus out there called Stuxnet. While I sometimes post about new computer viruses that can mess up your system, this one actually won’t. Because it’s not your average virus. This one wasn’t written by a lovesick teenager trying to impress a girl or Russian mobsters trying to extort a few dollars from you. No, Stuxnet is something else entirely. This virus is looking for one particular computer, and like The Terminator, it won’t stop until it finds it.

The virus is typically transmitted to Microsoft Windows computers via infected USB sticks. But the virus isn’t looking to infect Windows. It’s actually looking for a particular kind of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software built by the German industrial giant Siemens. This software is used to run industrial facilities like chemical and power plants. Once Stuxnet finds such a controller, it checks the SCADA software every five seconds to see if it’s the particular computer it’s looking for. If not, it simply does nothing but check again every five seconds. If it does find the computer it’s looking for… well, we don’t know what it’s programmed to do, but we know that it would execute certain commands, commands that would probably physically destroy the facility by opening valves or pipes or overloading turbines until something exploded.

Although the virus uses Windows to move from facility to facility, it should be noted that the hardware and software it’s targeting are proprietary to Siemens. This isn’t off-the-shelf stuff the virus is attacking. Whoever is behind the virus attack has deep pockets and really wants something destroyed… and that something is probably in Iran. And it’s probably the facility where nuclear weapons are being developed.

We don’t know enough about the origins of Stuxnet to say whether the CIA, Mossad or MI-6 is behind it… but we do have a precedent from the waning days of the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan’s plan to defeat the Soviets was breathtaking in its simplicity. The Soviet ruble was a closed currency, meaning that it wasn’t traded on the open currency markets. Therefore, no one wanted rubles, because you couldn’t use them to buy anything. So if the Soviets wanted to buy something from the West – like, say a supercomputer – they had to trade oil or grain or some other tangible good to get dollars, pounds or Deutsche marks, which they could then use to buy the supercomputer.

Reagan’s military build-up in the early 80s terrified the Soviets, mainly because they lacked the technology to make smart bombs and stealth bombers. So they had to use more and more of what little foreign currency they had to import technology that, by the time it had been reverse-engineered by Soviet scientists, was already out of date.

In a desperate attempt to obtain more foreign currency, the Soviets spent millions on a natural gas pipeline from Siberia. It was hoped that the gas could be sold to European nations and give the Soviets vital, continuous source of foreign currency.

Problem was that the Soviets lacked the know-how to build the computer systems needed to run the pipeline. The CIA knew this as well, and so the agency arranged for the Soviets to steal a purposely buggy design… software that would work well at first, but would eventually cause the pipeline to explode. And that’s exactly what happened. The Soviets lost millions, didn’t get access to foreign currency, and collapsed a few years later.

Of course, that was twenty years ago. The CIA has access to far more advanced technology today than it could have dreamed of at the time… so are they behind this?

And what’s truly scary about this – a computer virus that can physically destroy factories and power plants – is the question of what happens when this technology falls into the wrong hands.

Read more about Stuxnet here.

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