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How the Worm Turned

Stuxnet versus the Iranian nuclear program.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The final complication is that vast amounts of expertise in nuclear engineering were required. It’s not enough to design a worm to infiltrate a nuclear plant—Stuxnet’s creators had to know (1) what parts of the systems to target, (2) the intricacies of the systems’ designs, and (3) how to manipulate the systems to achieve the desired effects. This knowledge base might have been the most difficult to obtain. The world is full of enterprising computer jocks; there are only so many people who understand exactly how centrifuges and nuclear reactors work and the minute complexities of Siemens’s S7-315 and S7-417 control systems. It seems unlikely that a private party—a group of rogue hackers or interested civilians—could amass the requisite competencies in all three of these areas.

So who was it—the Israelis, the United States, Germany, Russia? Some combination of the above? We may never know. Given the scope of the operation, it’s amazing that we understand as much as we already do about Stuxnet. Most prior acts of cyberwarfare took place in the shadows; Stuxnet is the first serious cyberweapon to be caught in the wild by civilians. As a result, we’ve witnessed over the last few months an open-source investigation involving experts in different disciplines from around the world. The techies will continue to push and prod Stuxnet, trying to understand how it worked—and how systems can be protected from a similar attack.

Because, in fundamental ways, cyberwar is no different from real war. Innovations can be copied, and there is always the potential for enemies to turn them to their advantage. 

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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