There has been much discussion in the popular press of late about something called Flame and something called Stux-net, especially with regard to national security. However, many people do not understand what they are and why they are so troubling. Basically both of these are “computer worms” which, like viruses, attempt to perform malicious acts to your computer. The difference between a “worm” and a “virus” really has to do with how they are propagated. Computer viruses are a type of malware that generally deletes or changes files. They must be permitted to execute code and write to memory, and so generally attach themselves to some program; when the user runs the program, he or she also runs the virus (unintentionally). A worm, on the other hand, can self-replicate and move through a network (like the Internet). Generally worms are designed not only to spread, but also to make specific changes to the computer, including taking control of all or part of the computer. The key to understand is that the worm can cause damage to the system.

First, let’s talk about Stux-net. You may have heard about this one in 2010 when it was reported that there had been a cyberattack on Iranian uranium-enrichment centrifuges. This worm had been introduced into the Iranian nuclear processing facility (people in the know think it was introduced on a thumb drive), and it took control of the control system. A control system manages and regulates the machinery under its control, so that humans (often quite far away) can read sensors and information about they system and make adjustments. In this case, facility being monitored was Iran’s nuclear processing facility. The control system sent messages to uranium-enriching centrifuges to spin at speeds well beyond their tolerances. Obviously then the centrifuges were damaged.

You might ask how the worm could have caused that problem. Well, the programmers of the worm found vulnerabilities in the computer programs that run the control system. It is the same process of programmers exploiting bad programming the operating system so our computers can get viruses.

The worm caused so much damage to the facility that it has set back the nuclear program in Iran. At the time, there was discussion at the time that it might have originated in the United States and Israel, but there was no evidence to back up that claim.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss who was behind it and their motives. However, it is important to note that malware can get into a physical facility, such as power plants, water treatment facilities and other public utilities. These are things we have taken for granted as protected and safe. However, The Washington Post, reported that:

A recent examination of major control systems by six hacker-researchers working with the security firm Digital Bond found that six of seven devices in the study were riddled with hardware and software flaws. Some included back doors that enabled the hackers to download passwords or sidestep security completely.

In fact, according to The Washington Post,

Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers.

Further, they note,

A researcher at Cambridge University, Eireann Leverett, used Shodan to identify more than 10,000 control computers linked to the Internet, many of them with known vulnerabilities. Leverett concluded that many operators had no idea how exposed they were — or even realized that their machines were online.

Last week the press identified a new worm deployed in Iran called Flame. This seems to be primarily surveillance malware that allows someone to turn on microphones, look at data, track what people are doing on a computer, and perhaps even listen to nearby cell phone conversations. This worm was deployed to the Iranian oil industry and was attaching itself to control systems for the rigs and other equipment. It was detected and the Iranian government has unplugged those facilities from accessing the Internet. It has also created its own task force to combat these attacks and claims it intends to build its own Internet. This same worm has been found in the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

While the worms seem different, experts are not sure. They both move in the same fashion. In addition, computer experts say that the style of programming is similar between the two. Yes, it is true that there are styles of programming just as there are styles of writing. An expert can tell the reasons Emily Dickenson works are not confused with those of James Joyce. A computer expert can tell similarities in programming by how things are named, how they flow, and how different parts of the programs are hooked together. Worse yet, these experts claim to have found code that was apparently taken directly from Stux-net and put in Flame. All of those suggest similar authors.

What is the take-away for us? All of this mischief has put a spotlight on the fact that we, as a society, depend on computers for much beyond the business and pleasure applications we generally discuss. Everything from the car you drive to the utilities use computers to control them. And, where there are computers, there are people contemplating ways of breaking them. Most of these controllers were not visible to the average user, so they did not get attention from hackers. However, that also meant that their manufacturers often got lazy in building in the security to protect them. Now that they have the attention of the hackers, companies are scrambling to protect their controllers. Otherwise, we may be in for some rough times ahead at malicious or inadvertent attacks on our infrastrucutre.