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Symantec reports early Stuxnet variant first went live in 2005

'Very different' code caused gas attack on nuclear program

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RSA 2013 A new report from Symantec claims that Stuxnet is not a recent piece of malware, but was in action trying to cripple Iran's nuclear program way back in 2005.

"We now have evidence that Stuxnet actually had its command and control servers alive in 2005, that's five full years than anyone previously thought," said Francis deSouza, president of products and services at Symantec in his RSA 2013 keynote. "We also have evidence of this early variant of Stuxnet that we captured called Stuxnet 0.5, which behaves very differently from Stuxnet 1.0 found in 2010."

The 2010 version of Stuxnet attacked the Iranian nuke fuel program at Natanz by varying the speeds of motors in the centrifuges used for preparation of uranium at the plant. But Stuxnet 0.5 was designed for a different form of sabotage, and one that could have had explosive results.

The newly discovered code, which was first active in 2007, was installed via a USB key and lay dormant until the enrichment process began. It then took a series of snapshots of the control screen of the plant with all systems running normally, made an inventory of the system, and then went to work on the valves that feed uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges.

These valves would be opened up to make sure the gas flowed into the centrifuges regardless of the state of the fuel. It would hold them open for six minutes, all the while displaying the normal operations screens it swiped earlier, then would shut itself down and go into hiding again.

As well as damaging both the centrifuges and the fuel, such jiggery pokery could conceivably have caused a pressure buildup that would have caused the highly corrosive and toxic gas to leak out. It is not known what the final damage was to the Iranian facility, but according to data from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) it caused a significant dip in the amount of usable uranium created.

What's interesting here is the timing. The earlier build of Stuxnet was set up in 2005, well before the Natanz plant was even operational. The plant went live in 2007, and the malware was ready to go once the Iranians started the process. The 0.5 version of the code finally deactivated in 2009, six months before Stuxnet 1.0 was released.

It's widely reported that the US and Israeli government developed Stuxnet as a counter to Iran's nuclear ambitions as part of Project Olympic. It was tested on Pakistani-sourced P-1 centrifuges that the Libyans handed over when they ended their nuclear program in 2003, and these same systems are in use by the Iranians.

"These results show we are now close to the end of the first decade of weaponized malware," deSouza said. "As research continues to show, research and development on these kinds of weapons continues to grow." ®

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