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Stuxnet, a computer worm that hit and may have severely damaged Iranian nuclear facilities, is the type of cyberweapon that could broadly harm the United States, undermining both society and government ability to defend the nation, says a strongly worded report to Congress.
A successful broad-based attack on the US, using new variants of the Stuxnet weapon, could do enough widespread damage to critical infrastructure – including water, power, transportation, and other services – that it "threatens to cause harm to many activities deemed critical to the basic functioning of modern society," said the little-noticed report issued by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Dec. 9.
If retooled slightly, Stuxnet could be directed to target a wide swath of critical infrastructure facilities, rather than a narrow target such as Iran's nuclear fuel-enrichment facilities and nuclear power plant, the eight-page CRS synopsis warns, quoting researchers and other analysts.
“It will take two years for Iran to get back on track,” he said. “This was nearly as effective as a military strike, but even better since there are no fatalities and no full-blown war. From a military perspective, this was a huge success.”
Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.
The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.
But a problem for the Obama administration is how to spread the word without seeming alarmist about a subject that few politicians care to consider, let alone discuss. So officials are proceeding gingerly in a campaign to educate the public.
“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview. “We have to be ready to deal with it” and help people learn how to “best protect themselves.
It’s a plot straight out of Hollywood: Mysterious hackers create a malicious computer code designed to seize control of critical equipment worldwide. It turns out it really happened.
Since first reported in June, the Stuxnet worm—which some call the world’s first “cyberweapon”—has spread to 100,000 machines in more than 155 countries, though most are in Iran. Only a few machines in the United States have been infected. The worm spreads via infected usb flash drives and other means.
No one knows where the worm was created or what it was targeting. Researchers know only that it was capable of causing physical damage; for instance, it could make a motor rev too quickly and even blow up. “Using something in the cyberworld to control something in the physical world is something we’ve never seen before,” says Liam O Murchu of the computer security company Symantec.
Computer and control system security professionals like Ralph Langner, who is based in Germany, believe the Stuxnet worm was targeting Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, or both.
Langner and others say the malware’s sophistication points to one or more well-financed nation-states such as Israel or the United States, two countries with motive and the ability to conduct the attack. (Neither country has officially commented on the Stuxnet attack.)
“The clock is ticking,” Langner says. “We are going to see copycats by the beginning of 2011.”
A new article in the New York Times detailing the damage done to Iran’s civilian nuclear program by the Stuxnet computer worm not only confirms Israel’s role in the development, but adds that the US played a role in its development and testing.
Though officials have declind to confirm this directly, the article describes Stuxnet as a “joint American and Israeli effort” and details its testing at Israel’s Dimona site, where they use “virtually identical” centrifuges in the creation of their own massive nuclear arsenal.
Russian nuclear officials have warned of another Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster at Iran's controversial Bushehr reactor because of the damage caused by the Stuxnet virus, according to the latest Western intelligence reports.