A sophisticated worm designed to steal industrial secrets and disrupt operations has infected at least 14 plants, according to Siemens.
Called Stuxnet, the worm was discovered in July when researchers at VirusBlokAda found it on computers in Iran. It is one of the most sophisticated and unusual pieces of malicious software ever created — the worm leveraged a previously unknown Windows vulnerability (now patched) that allowed it to spread from computer to computer, typically via USB sticks.
The worm, designed to attack Siemens industrial control systems, has not spread widely. However, it has affected a number of Siemens plants, according to company spokesman Simon Wieland. “We detected the virus in the SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] systems of 14 plants in operation but without any malfunction of process and production and without any damage,” he said in an e-mail message.
This is worrisome news because according to a new paper on the worm, set to be delivered at this month’s Virus Bulletin conference in Vancouver, Stuxnet could be used to cause a significant amount of damage if it is not properly removed.
Researchers at Symantec have cracked Stuxnet’s cryptographic system, and they say it is the first worm built not only to spy on industrial systems, but also to reprogram them.
Once installed on a PC, Stuxnet uses Siemens’ default passwords to seek out and try to gain access to systems that run the WinCC and PCS 7 programs — so-called PLC (programmable logic controller) programs that are used to manage large-scale industrial systems on factory floors and in military installations and chemical and power plants.
The software operates in two stages following infection, according to Symantec Security Response Supervisor Liam O’Murchu. First it uploads configuration information about the Siemens system to a command-and-control server. Then the attackers are able to pick a target and actually reprogram the way it works. “They decide how they want the PLCs to work for them, and then they send code to the infected machines that will change how the PLCs work,” O’Murchu said.
As Wieland noted, there are no known cases of plant operations actually being affected.
However, that’s certainly a possibility, according to O’Murchu. Stuxnet comes with a rootkit, deigned to hide any commands it downloads from operators of the Siemens systems. Because of that, Symantec warns that even if the worm’s Windows components are removed, the Siemens software might still contain hidden commands. Symantec advises companies that have been infected to thoroughly audit the code on their PLCs or restore the system from a secure backup, in order to be safe.
Stuxnet has infected systems in the U.K., North America and Korea, however the largest number of infections, by far, have been in Iran.
The first samples of the Stuxnet code date back to June of 2009, but security experts believe that it probably did not start infecting systems until earlier this year.
Defense contractors and companies with valuable intellectual property have been hit with targeted attacks for years now — in January Google said it was the target of a sophisticated data-stealing effort known as operation Aurora. But Stuxnet marks the first time that someone has targeted the factory floor.
And if the worm were to be used to mess up systems at a chemical or power plant, the results could be devastating.
“We’ve definitely never seen anything like this before,” O’Murchu said. “The fact that it can control the way physical machines work is quite disturbing.”
It’s unlikely that Stuxnet could take over new systems at this point, however. Symantec gained control of the domain used to send commands to infected machines shortly after Stuxnet was discovered, meaning that the hackers behind it no longer have a way to send new commands to infected systems.
Nobody knows who’s behind Stuxnet, but recently Kaspersky Lab researcher Roel Schouwenberg said that it was most likely a nation state.
Symantec’s O’Murchu agrees that the worm was done by particularly sophisticated attackers. “This is definitely not your typical operation,” he said.
Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert’s e-mail address is email@example.com