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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: stuxnet, weaponized malware
Companies: chevron


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  1. icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 20 Nov 2012 @ 8:43pm

    Re: Never assume .....

    One can't make unequivocal statements about the damages wrought from malware,

    And yet you're comparing it to planes falling out of the sky. That is what I am arguing against, the alarmism displayed in your comment, and a subtle tone of it in the original article.

    We can have rational discussions on information security without resorting to the hype that we rightly criticize when some congressman does the Chicken Little routine trying to scare up votes for their overreaching bill.

    Perhaps me saying there was no harm done was not strictly correct - but we currently know of no ill effects outside of the intended target - and it has been awhile - besides some people and organizations having to do routine scans and purges of their systems. If you know of any, please share, but until we have evidence, we also shouldn't assume there was harm.

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