Jun 142011
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Last year’s Stuxnet virus attack represented a new kind of threat to critical infrastructure.

Just over a year ago, a computer in Iran started repeatedly rebooting itself, seemingly without reason. Suspecting some kind of malicious software (malware), analysts at VirusBlokAda, an antivirus-software company in Minsk, examined the misbehaving machine over the Internet, and soon found that they were right. Disturbingly so: the code they extracted from the Iranian machine proved to be a previously unknown computer virus of unprecedented size and complexity.

On 17 June 2010, VirusBlokAda issued a worldwide alert that set off an international race to track down what came to be known as Stuxnet: the most sophisticated computer malware yet found and the harbinger of a new generation of cyberthreats. Unlike conventional malware, which does its damage only in the virtual world of computers and networks, Stuxnet would turn out to target the software that controls pumps, valves, generators and other industrial machines.

“It was the first time we’d analysed a threat that could cause real-world damage, that could actually cause some machine to break, that might be able to cause an explosion,” says Liam O Murchu, chief of security response for the world’s largest computer-security firm, Symantec in Mountain View, California.

Stuxnet provided chilling proof that groups or nations could launch a cyberattack against a society’s vital infrastructures for water and energy. “We are probably just now entering the era of the cyber arms race,” says Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for F-Secure, an antivirus company based in Helsinki.

Worse yet, the Stuxnet episode has highlighted just how inadequate are society’s current defences — and how glaring is the gap in cybersecurity science.

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