Called Stuxnet, the worm was unknown until mid-July, when it was identified by investigators with VirusBlockAda, a security vendor based in Minsk, Belarus. The worm is notable not only for its technical sophistication, but also for the fact that it targets the industrial control system computers designed to run factories and power plants.
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Now researchers at Symantec say that they've identified an early version of the worm that was created in June 2009, and that the malicious software was then made much more sophisticated in the early part of 2010.
This earlier version of Stuxnet acts in the same way as its current incarnation -- it tries to connect with Siemens SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) management systems and steal data -- but it does not use some of the newer worm's more remarkable techniques to evade antivirus detection and install itself on Windows systems. Those features were probably added a few months before the latest worm was first detected, said Roel Schouwenberg, a researcher with antivirus vendor Kaspersky Lab. "This is without any doubt the most sophisticated targeted attack we have seen so far," he said.
After Stuxnet was created, its authors added new software that allowed it to spread among USB devices with virtually no intervention by the victim. And they also somehow managed to get their hands on encryption keys belonging to chip companies Realtek and JMicron and digitally sign the malware, so that antivirus scanners would have a harder time detecting it.
Realtek and JMicron both have offices in the Hsinchu Science Park in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and Schouwenberg believes that someone may have stolen the keys by physically accessing computers at the two companies.
Security experts say these targeted attacks have been ongoing for years now, but they only recently started gaining mainstream attention, after Google disclosed that it had been targeted by an attack known as Aurora.
Both Aurora and Stuxnet leverage unpatched "zero-day" flaws in Microsoft products. But Stuxnet is more technically remarkable than the Google attack, Schouwenberg said. "Aurora had a zero-day, but it was a zero-day against IE6," he said. "Here you have a vulnerability which is effective against every version of Windows since Windows 2000."
On Monday, Microsoft rushed out an early patch for the Windows vulnerability that Stuxnet uses to spread from system to system. Microsoft released the update just as the Stuxnet attack code started to be used in more virulent attacks.
Although Stuxnet could have been used by a counterfeiter to steal industrial secrets -- factory data on how to make golf clubs, for example -- Schouwenberg suspects a nation state was behind the attacks.
To date, Siemens says four of its customers have been infected with the worm. But all those attacks have affected engineering systems, rather than anything on the factory floor.
Although the first version of the worm was written in June 2009, it's unclear if that version was used in a real-world attack. Schouwenberg believes the first attack could have been as early as July 2009. The first confirmed attack that Symantec knows about dates from January 2010, said Vincent Weafer, Symantec's vice president of security technology and response.
Most infected systems are in Iran, he added, although India, Indonesia, and Pakistan are also being hit. This in itself is highly unusual, Weaver said. "It is the first time in 20 years I can remember Iran showing up so heavily."