However, the kind of malware that you and I have experienced is nothing compared to some of the larger “infections” that have managed to infiltrate extremely important infrastructure systems. Sure, a computer virus that spreads to a couple thousand computers and causes them to run slowly is inconvenient, however, it is probably a lot more inconvenient to all of us when a certain virus infects a nuclear power plant’s infrastructure.
Stuxnet was a cyberweapon created with the alleged intention of disrupting Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program. Essentially, it was a combination of a worm and a rootkit that successfully caused certain nuclear machinery‒particularly, centrifuges‒to spin out of control and self-destruct. Obviously, the whole spinning out of control part is quite dangerous as metal could fly off of the axis while travelling over 100 miles per hour and turn someone into a ragdoll.
Stuxnet was particularly impressive because it specifically targeted hardware as opposed to software on a computer system. Many computer viruses affect the operating system or some programs on the computer, which can indirectly affect the hardware by causing problems like overheating. Stuxnet actually went right for the hardware though by manipulating programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which are mainly responsible for controlling the automatic and recurring processes that occur in machinery, like centrifuges. So, say the PLCs responsible for keeping the turning rate of the centrifuges at around 90,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) were modified by the worm to increase to 900,000 RPM. There would obviously be costly problems that arise.
Stuxnet was thought to be developed in the early 2000s and it appeared to first be released at some point in mid-2009. It was not discovered until approximately a year later by Kaspersky Lab‒the same Russian based corporation that has been caught up in the 2016 US presidential election scandal. What allowed this computer virus to roam freely throughout the Iranian nuclear power program for a year? That would be the rootkit. You see, the computer worm was the meat behind Stuxnet. It was actually what caused the centrifuges to become dysfunctional. However, the rootkit was what allowed the worm to remain undetected. That part of Stuxnet was responsible for allowing the worm to remain undetected by some pretty hefty anti-cyberweapon detection.
Interestingly, Stuxnet was a piece of malware that had an extremely specific target. It was only meant to properly work on computers that used Siemens Step7 software. That means that if you were to intentionally put the virus on your PC, it is likely that it would not actually do anything. This shows that this worm was meant to do an extremely specific job and that it is incredibly likely that Iran’s nuclear program was intentionally targeted.
Even more interesting is that the malware most likely spread through means of a USB drive, meaning that someone most likely intentionally uploaded the worm and rootkit into the systems.
Who would do such a thing? Well it is widely suspected that America and Israel or possibly other Western countries cooperated to develop Stuxnet in order to greatly hinder Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. This makes much more sense if you understand the United States’ and Iran’s tense background when it comes to nuclear weapons. Obviously, no countries have fessed up to being behind Stuxnet, but clearly it was an advanced cyberweapon that had a clear goal in mind.
Now, you are probably wondering just how successful Stuxnet actually was at slowing down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Well, apparently about 20% of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges were ruined solely due to Stuxnet. And remember, that was only about a year’s worth of damage. Imagine if this went undiscovered for another couple of years. Fortunately for the Iranians (and probably unfortunately for the United States government), the Iranians were able to bounce back from Stuxnet’s destruction and have been able to continue research into nuclear power.