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Officials: Real threat that hackers could tweak Stuxnet to attack U.S. critical infrastructure

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Stuxnet worm ultimately resulted in the destruction of more than 20 percent of the computers running Iran's nuclear power program. While its origin is still debated, many analysts have said that the U.S. and Israel worked together to deploy the computer virus. According to a published report, officials are concerned that the same attack could be used to infiltrate critical infrastructure protections (CIP) in the U.S.

Wired reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently told Congress that it is increasingly worried that the Stuxnet worm could be used to take out portions of the country's power supply network. The fears, according to cyber security experts, are warranted as the Stuxnet takes advantage of a vulnerability in computer systems. 

The Obama Administration has been pushing power providers, transmitters and distributors to increase the pace of smart grid development. All the while, high-ranking administration officials have affirmed that smart grid cyber security measures need to be implemented to ensure that hackers cannot gain access to the critically important infrastructure.

During a speech he gave to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Bobbie Stempfley, the acting assistant secretary for the DHS Office of Cybersecurity and Communications (OCC), affirmed that the U.S. is vulnerable to a cyber security infiltration. 

DHS officials are "concerned that attackers could use the increasingly public information about the code to develop variants targeted at broader installations of programmable equipment in control systems. Copies of the Stuxnet code, in various different iterations, have been publicly available for some time now," Stempfley asserted. 

Sean McGurk, also representing the OCC, said that the Stuxnet has been available publicly for some time now, making it likely that hackers have been able to effectively study and learn how it functions. McGurk said that Cyber security experts could easily manipulate the code of the worm and deploy it against the U.S., according to a report from SecFence Technologies Blog

Private researchers who studied Stuxnet following its discovery last year said that it was developed to specifically target a vulnerability in an industrial control system manufactured by the German engineering giant Siemens. However, Stuxnet was targeted to only affect such systems at Iran's nuclear enrichment plant in Natanz. 

The United Nations, along with officials from a host of other countries, have warned Iran to scale back its nuclear efforts and while officials have long said the program was launched solely to generate power, U.S. policymakers have long suspected that the country is surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear bomb.

Researcher Ralph Langner recently said that it is exceedingly easy for hackers to manipulate the malware to attack industrial control systems across the globe, including in the U.S. The feat is so easy to accomplish that Langner argues that a novice would need "zero inside information and zero programming skills at the controller level in order to perform a Stuxnet-inspired attack." 

The DHS also said that aside from the threat of cyber security hackers working from abroad, the agency suspects that U.S. residents and domestic operations could be working to launch an assault on cyber security networks, the London Telegraph reports.

"Nation states, terrorist networks, organized criminal groups, and individuals located here in the United States" are "capable of targeting elements of the U.S. information infrastructure to disrupt, or destroy systems upon which we depend," DHS officials affirmed. 

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