Stuxnet Worm Did Likely Target Iranian Nuclear Facilities

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New details about the Stuxnet virus suggest, quite clearly, that Iranian facilities were its target. A paper by the Symantec researchers who've been reverse-engineering the highly sophisticated attack software to find out what it could do to industrial systems indicates that centrifuges were the likely target, reports Kim Zetter at Wired's Threat Level.

So, let's walk through what Stuxnet was built to do once it used its various tools and skeleton keys to get inside its target system(s). The virus set itself up between the control systems and frequency converters that are used to control the speed of motors. From that position, it could secretly control motors without alerting anyone to its presence. That is, if the factory had the precise configuration it was looking for; Stuxnet would only go into attack mode if the facility had more than 33 frequency converter drives manufactured by Iran's Fararo Paya or Finland's Vacon.

By itself, that piece of information suggests that Iran was a target of the attack, but the evidence gets more detailed. Stuxnet targets only very high-frequency drives from the two companies. While the centrifuges used to enrich uranium are not the only possible uses for such drives, they sure do fit the bill for that activity. In fact, drives of that speed would be regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if you tried to export them.

But Stuxnet wasn't designed to destroy the drives or the facility. Its preferred sabotage method was much more subtle. Over long periods of time -- weeks in some cases -- the worm would alter the speed of the motors, pushing it up and down. That precision disruption would, in turn, hurt the purity of any centrifuges' output without calling attention to itself.

"It wanted to lie there and wait and continuously change how a process worked over a long period of time to change the end results," Symantec researcher Liam O Murchu told Zetter.

Put it this way: if Stuxnet wasn't designed to sabotage an Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, it's hard to imagine what it might have targeted.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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