Stuxnet's Infection Of Chevron Shows Why 'Weaponized' Malware Is A Bad Idea

from the cyberenemy-within dept

The Stuxnet worm that attacked an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility a couple of years ago was exceptional from several viewpoints. It is believed to have been the costliest development effort in malware history, involving dozens of engineers. It also made use of an unprecedented number of zero-day exploits in Microsoft Windows in order to operate. Finally, Stuxnet seems to be the first piece of malware known with reasonable certainty to have been created by the US, probably working closely with Israel.

As Techdirt reported earlier this year, we know all this largely because the malware escaped from the target environment in Iran, and started spreading in the wild. We now learn that one of the companies infected as a result was Chevron:

The oil giant discovered the malware in July 2010 after the virus escaped from its intended target, Mark Koelmel, Chevron's general manager of the earth sciences department, told The Wall Street Journal.

"I don't think the U.S. government even realized how far it had spread," he said. "I think the downside of what they did is going to be far worse than what they actually accomplished."
This highlights a huge problem with the use of malware by national security services to carry out these kinds of covert attacks on their enemies. Where a physical attack on a foreign nation is unlikely to cause direct casualties back at home -- although it may lead to indirect ones through retaliation -- attacks using worms and other malware are far less targeted. If they escape, as is likely to happen given the near-impossibility of controlling what happens to them once they have been released, they may well find their way back to the attacker's homeland, and start infecting computer systems there.

This makes the "weaponization" of malware an inherently dangerous approach. Imagine if a nation deployed worms or viruses that changed data on infected systems in subtle ways, and that these started spreading by mistake among that same country's health organizations or banks. Lives could be lost, and financial systems thrown into disarray.

That's something worth bearing in mind amid increasing calls for the development of software that can be used offensively: as well as the likelihood of tit-for-tat responses, there is also the very real danger that the weapon will turn against the nation that created it.

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  1. identicon
    Pseudonym, 20 Nov 2012 @ 3:34pm

    Re: No harm done elsewhere

    I hear what you're saying, but I disagree that "it didn't do anything". Chevron was right to reassure people that no damage was done, but it certainly did stuff.

    First off, it cost a considerable amount of time and money for Chevron, not to mention everyone else.

    Secondly, it reduced Chevron's security in a tangible sense. Stuxnet had remote command and control capabilities, through two web sites. Had someone managed to compromise or spoof those web sites before they were taken down, they would have had remote root access to a crapload of machines.

    It's kind of like someone forging a master key to Chevron's buildings, and sneaked in and had a look around, but didn't touch anything. Yeah, they did do something, even if it wasn't as nearly bad as it could have been.

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