Stuxnet – The Fourth Dimension in Warfare
By Pratik Roy Choudhuri

In the last one hundred years, scientific research and technological progress has reshaped the lives of human beings in almost every aspect. War, one of the most decisive factors in our world, too has changed drastically over the passage of time. In the nineteenth century, war was decided by a nation’s armed forces and its naval might. In the twentieth century, with the invention of the airplane, human beings found a new realm to conquer and dominate. Most human lives in the twenty first century is somewhat affected by the virtual realm of the internet. Thus, it comes as no surprise that modern warfare is being conducted in this new unconquered dimension.

The Stuxnet worm was first identified in Belarus by Sergey Ulasen, an employee of VirusBlokAda a computer security vendor. As computer security and anti-virus firms exchange the metadata of their findings, news soon spread about the uniqueness of the new-found malware. A zero-day exploit is a software vulnerability that is usually used by hackers as a surefire way getting their job done without the security vendor being aware of its existence. It offers zero days of protection against the specific hack and is worth a fortune in the cyber black markets. Researchers were baffled to find four different zero-day exploits in the Stuxnet worm. The malware contained private keys of two digital certificates that enabled its device drivers to be digitally signed. This is specifically required on Windows 7 as one cannot install certain types of software without a digital signature. The certificates used in the Stuxnet worm, owned by the companies RealTek and JMicron, were stolen from the Hsinchu Science Park in Taiwan. Stuxnet for its considerably large size (0.5 MB) contained no bugs. With each line of code specifically designed to fulfill a specific target, it became evident that Stuxnet was designed for a specific target.

Stuxnet was designed to learn about the hardware and proceed with its payload or purpose accordingly. It particularly targeted programmable logic controllers or PLC’s manufactured by Siemens. A PLC is a small computer that is attached to a piece of hardware or machinery. It is used to regulate and operate those machines and is vital in developing critical infrastructure. The worm, when active goes through a number of checks. If Stuxnet did not find the exact hardwares in place, it would not proceed. After learning its environment, the worm keeps a log of the operating conditions of the machineries. Once it detects the required hardwares, Stuxnet distorts the functions of the machines while indicating that it is functioning perfectly. It sends back the information it collected and fools the system into believing that there is nothing wrong. Stuxnet kept a log of all the machines it infected. This allowed experts to backtrack the worm’s path to its initial target. To everyone surprise and shock, Stuxnet’s initial target was the nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran. Experts agreed that such a sophisticated digital weapon could only have been developed by a nation-state and given magnitude of its target, it was agreed that the attack was politically motivated.

Its presence caused quite a stir and indeed a lot of panic, something Stuxnet was not designed to do. Iran has since strengthened its cyber warfare division and claimed to have digitally hit back at the western powers which it blames for the attack on its nuclear facility. Unlike nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, there are no digital weapons treaties that exists between the superpowers of the world till this date. The use of digital weapons, worryingly, remains unregulated. Till the leaders of men find an agreeable solution to control and check the use of cyber offensive weapons, the Hollywoodesque scenario of a software existing in the cyber realm causing real world physical damage and destruction remains very real.

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