Zero Days: A documentary focused on Stuxnet, a piece of self-replicating computer malware that the U.S. and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target.
Zero Days covers the phenomenon surrounding the Stuxnet computer virus and the development of the malware software known as “Olympic Games.” It concludes with discussion over follow up cyber plan Nitro Zeus and the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Stuxnet: Stuxnet is a malicious computer worm, first identified in 2010, that targets industrial computer systems and was responsible for causing substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear program. The software was designed to erase itself in 2012 thus limiting the scope of its effects. The worm is believed by many experts to be a jointly built American-Israeli cyberweapon, although no organization or state has officially admitted responsibility. Anonymous American officials speaking to The Washington Post claimed the worm was developed during the Bush administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with what would seem like a long series of unfortunate accidents.
Stuxnet specifically targets programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which allow the automation of electromechanical processes such as those used to control machinery on factory assembly lines, amusement rides, or centrifuges for separating nuclear material. Exploiting four zero-day flaws, Stuxnet functions by targeting machines using the Microsoft Windows operating system and networks, then seeking out Siemens Step7 software. Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. Stuxnet’s design and architecture are not domain-specific and it could be tailored as a platform for attacking modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and PLC systems (e.g., in factory assembly lines or power plants), the majority of which reside in Europe, Japan and the US. Stuxnet reportedly ruined almost one fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.
Stuxnet has three modules: a worm that executes all routines related to the main payload of the attack; a link file that automatically executes the propagated copies of the worm; and a rootkit component responsible for hiding all malicious files and processes, preventing detection of the presence of Stuxnet.
Stuxnet is typically introduced to the target environment via an infected USB flash drive. The worm then propagates across the network, scanning for Siemens Step7 software on computers controlling a PLC. In the absence of either criterion, Stuxnet becomes dormant inside the computer. If both the conditions are fulfilled, Stuxnet introduces the infected rootkit onto the PLC and Step7 software, modifying the codes and giving unexpected commands to the PLC while returning a loop of normal operations system values feedback to the users.
In 2015, Kaspersky Labs’ research findings on another highly sophisticated espionage platform created by what they called the Equation Group, noted that the group had used two of the same zero-day attacks used by Stuxnet, before they were used in Stuxnet, and their use in both programs was similar. The researchers reported that “the similar type of usage of both exploits together in different computer worms, at around the same time, indicates that the Equation Group and the Stuxnet developers are either the same or working closely together”.:13 Costin Raiu, the director of Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team, believes that the Equation Group cooperates with the Stuxnet and Flame groups only from a position of clear superiority, giving them their “bread crumbs”.
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