Stuxnet, Ethics and the Law

This first of 3 part series discusses the development of the Stuxnet malware, the legal and ethical issues. This thought provoking article raises questions into cyber terrorism and weather this is for offensive or defensive purposes.

In June of 2010, a piece of Malware was discovered inside industrial software and control systems that are utilised to control and monitor industrial processes. The primary focus of the Malware, later named Stuxnet, was targeted towards Siemens Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems that control uranium enrichment infrastructure. Through forensic investigation, it was discovered that 60% of infected infrastructure resided in Iran.

Through the investigation, it was speculated that the development of Stuxnet, labelled by many as a “Cyber-weapon of Mass Destruction” would require deep knowledge of the specific infrastructure and that Government input would be required. It is firmly believed that the development of Stuxnet was funded by the United States (US) Department of Defence (DoD) and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) in retaliation to Iran’s continuation of a Uranium enrichment program as this set back Iran’s nuclear program by at least 2 years.

The primary aim of Stuxnet is believed to be to speed up and slow down Uranium enrichment centrifuges to a point where the Uranium becomes unstable for nuclear enrichment. The Malware carried out its task with the majority or Uranium fuel rods becoming unusable after the attack.

It is believed that the attack utilised several 0 day attacks, as well as up to 3 exploits that targeted vulnerabilities in aging infrastructure due to the configuration of SCADA as well as the use of a removable media device containing a self-propagating Remote Access Tool (RAT) to gain access to the environment that did not have an Internet connection. 

Until recently where the US admitted involvement with the development of Stuxnet, it could not be proved that there was any form of Government involvement; the issue of ethics and the law becomes very blurred in the discussion of Stuxnet. At the time of infection, the US has led an ongoing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program and for the country to halt all production for many years, at the time, there was no solid evidence proving involvement from the US DoD.

Coincidentally Israel is one of Iran’s primary rivals and hold concern for the development of a nuclear development facility. While this provides motives for both of these countries, forensic investigations were not able to definitively link either of these nations to the development of Stuxnet. Even if a link could be made to either nation, how would Iran take action against nations that they consider to be “hostile?”


"Nick is a specialist IT and Information Security professional with broad experience carrying out security related engagements in Public, Government and Financial Sectors with large National and International organisations. He specialises in the Governance, Risk and Compliance field with supporting skills in Ethical Hackings, Forensics, and Security Architecture. Supported by a Bachelor of Computer Science, Master of Computer and Network Security degree and a CISSP certification, Nick has extensive experience from a real world perspective, understanding security vs usability and the need for IT and security to meet the business objectives while treating actual rather than perceived risk.

Currently working as an IT Solutions Architect coordinating global security governance and design for a large multi-national manufacturing organisation, Nick’s security passion lies in the challenges being faced around managing the organisation’s expectations and desires."

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