Stuxnet scored quick hit on first target, says researcher

Infected Iranian PC just 12 hours after worm's code was compiled, reports Symantec

Stuxnet infected its first target just 12 hours after hackers finished the worm, an indication that the malware scored an almost instant bulls-eye, a researcher said today.

The makers of Stuxnet launched the worm "as soon as they had it ready," Liam O Murchu, manager of operations of Symantec's security response team, said in an interview Monday.

"They knew where they wanted to deliver it, and to whom, and because that domain was targeted several different times, it shows they really wanted to get into [that target]," O Murchu added.

On Friday, Symantec published new information on Stuxnet, the worm that most suspect was aimed at Iran's nuclear program, including the uranium enrichment centrifuges at its underground Natanz facility.

In its newest Stuxnet analysis, Symantec said that 10 original infections in three waves over an 11-month period had targeted five domains linked to organizations within Iran. Symantec has declined to name the organizations, saying only that all five were involved in industrial processing.

As the worm spread, those 10 infected PCs later hijacked about 12,000 Iranian computers.

Symantec also compared each worm variant's compile time- and date-stamp -- when the attackers finished work on the malicious code -- with each version's first infection to track the speed with which Stuxnet did its damage.

It took the initial variant, compiled on June 22, 2009, just 12 hours to infect its first PC, said O Murchu, one of three Symantec experts who have spent months digging into the worm's code. The short interval means that the attackers planned carefully, he said, and had pinpointed their targets long before they had wrapped up their work.

Other targets in the first wave were infected six days, 14 days and 26 days after the worm code was compiled.

Previously, Symantec has said that one target of Stuxnet was the Natanz facility , where Iran houses thousands of high-speed centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium into bomb-grade material. Within Stuxnet is code crafted to grab control of the high-speed electrical motors that spin centrifuges. According to Symantec, Stuxnet sabotages those centrifuges by speeding up and slowing down their motors.

Iranian officials have confirmed that the worm infected tens of thousands of the country's PCs, and have admitted that Stuxnet affected the operation of some of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The country has blamed Israel and the U.S. for the attacks.

Last month the New York Times, citing confidential sources, said that the worm was a joint American-Israeli project , and had been tested on Iranian-style centrifuges at the latter's secret nuclear facility at Dimona.

The average time between compilation and infection for all 10 initial attacks was 19 days, and the median was 26 days, said Symantec.

Another target in the first wave was also the most important, said O Murchu, who noted that the organization was hit not only in mid-2009, but also by two later waves in March and April 2010. That organization was the only one of the five infected by all three attacks.

Of the three waves of Stuxnet attacks -- June 2009, March 2010 and April 2010 -- the second was the most successful, according to O Murchu.

The March 2010 variant was the first to include an exploit of a vulnerability in how Windows parsed shortcut files, the small files displayed by icons on the desktop, on the toolbar and in the Start menu that launch applications and documents when clicked. By crafting malicious shortcuts, the hackers could automatically execute malware whenever a user viewed the shortcut or the contents of a folder containing the malevolent shortcut.

"That exploit was far more effective than the original AutoRun attack," said O Murchu, referring to the June 2009 Stuxnet's reliance on malformed files contained on a USB drive. "[Using the Windows shortcut vulnerability] allowed [the March 2010] Stuxnet to spread so much faster."

Stuxnet was able to exploit the shortcut bug for months before the vulnerability went public in June 2010. Microsoft rushed an emergency patch to customers in early August.

Although there were only minor differences between the March 2010 and April 2010 variants, the former infected more machines, and had a better chance of reaching the intended target, said O Murchu. He was at a loss to explain the difference, but speculated that the first PC infected by the March wave may have been better connected to other Iranian computer networks.

Most analysts have assumed that the initial attacks were delivered on infected USB drives since it would be unlikely that Natanz is directly connected to the Internet. O Murchu said it was impossible to tell from the Stuxnet code if that was the case, however.

"It could have been delivered on a USB drive, but whether it was, or as an e-mail attachment, we can't tell," he said.

Symantec's revised report on Stuxnet can be downloaded from the company's site ( download PDF ).

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags governmentsecuritysymantecMalware and VulnerabilitiesGovernment/Industries

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?