Mossad's Miracle Weapon: Stuxnet Virus Opens New Era of Cyber War

By Holger Stark

Part 3: Success Comparable to Cracking Enigma

The Mossad views Stuxnet as a great success, comparable to the cracking of Germany's Enigma cipher machine by the Poles and Britons in World War II. The Israeli military isn't as euphoric. It argues that the fact that Stuxnet was discovered was a high price to pay, despite the setback it dealt to Iran's mullah-led regime.

And it was a painful setback indeed. An Iranian IR-1 centrifuge normally spins at 1,064 hertz, or cycles per second. When the rotors began going haywire, they increased their frequency to 1,410 hertz for 15 minutes and then returned to their normal frequency. The virus took over control again 27 days later, but this time it slowed down the rotors to a frequency of a few hundred hertz for a full 50 minutes. The resulting excessive centrifugal force caused the aluminum tubes to expand, increasing the risk of parts coming into contact with one another and thereby destroying the centrifuges.

Six cascades containing 164 centrifuges each were reportedly destroyed in this manner. Authorities on the Iranian nuclear program, like David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), believe that Stuxnet destroyed about 1,000 centrifuges. Iran has admitted that its nuclear program was set back. According to Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran's civil defense organization, the program suffered "potentially major damage."

Former Mossad chief Dagan achieved his goal of sabotaging the nuclear program without triggering a new war in the Middle East. But Iran still has 8,000 other centrifuges, and the more modern, second-generation IR-2 centrifuges, which are equipped with carbon fiber rotors, can operate smoothly even at 1,400 hertz. They are not affected by the existing version of the sabotage software. The Mossad could be in need of a new virus soon. Using it would constitute the next round in a clandestine cyber war.

'People Had Never Seen Anything Like Stuxnet Before'

Two young Israelis who work indirectly for the government are sitting in one of Tel Aviv's modern cafés. The men run a company that handles jobs for the Mossad and Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency. They smile and say that digital attack, not defense, is their discipline. They are part of a global hacker elite. According to rumors circulating in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the men did some of the groundwork for the Mossad in the development of Stuxnet.

"People had never seen anything like Stuxnet before, except in movies," says one of the hackers. "Now they can see that it's real." His voice is filled with pride when he says: "In the small community of attackers, none of this was really new." Almost all of the vulnerabilities had already been used in a past attack, the hacker says, but they had never been used at the same time. He explains that the real challenge in staging an attack with a virus like Stuxnet is to penetrate into a system that is not connected to the Internet.

What are the consequences of Stuxnet?

The two men are silent for a moment; they see things from the attacker's perspective. "The discovery of Stuxnet was a serious blow to us," one of them says. "We find it particularly upsetting, because a successful method was disclosed."

The inventors of Stuxnet apparently had many more plans for their product. Symantec has since discovered another version of the Stuxnet virus, which contains even more complex code and is designed to target modern Siemens control technology, but which had not been activated yet. Stuxnet, say the people at Symantec, "is the type of threat we hope to never see again."

That wish is unlikely to come true.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Graphic: How Stuxnet sabotaged Iran's nuclear program


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