DHS chief: What we learned from Stuxnet

Janet Napolitano says private sector needs to 'increase the rapidity of response' to threats

If there's a lesson to be learned from last year's Stuxnet worm, it's that the private sector needs to be able to respond quickly to cyber-emergencies, the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Monday.

"The key thing we learnt from Stuxnet was the need for rapid response across the private sector," DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told engineering students at the University of California, Berkeley. "There, we need to increase the rapidity of response, because in that area -- as in several other recent attacks -- we've seen very, very sophisticated, very, very novel ways of attacking. When you're getting at control systems, now you're really talking [about] taking things over, so this is an area of deep concern for us."

Although nobody knows who created Stuxnet, many believe that it opened a new chapter in the annals of cybersecurity: the first worm written to destroy factory control systems. On Monday, Iran said it had been hit with a second worm, called Stars,, but security experts aren't sure that it really falls into the same class as Stuxnet.

Stuxnet was a watershed event, according to Napolitano.

When Stuxnet hit, the U.S. Deparment of Homeland security was sent scrambling to analyze the threat. Systems had to be flown in from Germany to the federal government's Idaho National Laboratory. In short order the worm was decoded, but for some time, many companies that owned Siemens equipment were left wondering what, if any measures, they should take to protect themselves from the new worm.

Both Siemens and the DHS group responsible for communicating with operators of industrial systems (the ICS-CERT, or Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team) could have been better at getting information out to the public, said Bob Radvanovsky, a security expert.

ICS-CERT has never posted information that wasn't already known to members of his discussion list, who share information amongst each other, he said

Radvanovsky is the moderator of the Scadasec discussion list, an open forum for discussions about cyber security in industrial systems. "Both industry and government fail to understand the value of the Internet," he said.

With Stuxnet, neither Siemens nor DHS itself were the ones to explain that the worm was actually built to target -- and then destroy -- a particular industrial facility. That work was done by security researchers at Symantec, Kaspersky Lab, and -- most notably -- by security expert, Ralph Langner

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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Robert McMillan

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