Stuxnet explained: How code can destroy machinery and stop (or start) a war

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Stuxnet is an extremely sophisticated computer worm that exploits multiple previously unknown Windows zero-day vulnerabilities to infect computers and spread. Its purpose was not just to infect PCs but to cause real-world physical effects. Specifically, it targets centrifuges used to produce the enriched uranium that powers nuclear weapons and reactors.

Stuxnet was first identified by the infosec community in 2010, but development on it probably began in 2005. Despite its unparalleled ability to spread and its widespread infection rate, Stuxnet does little or no harm to computers not involved in uranium enrichment. When it infects a computer, it checks to see if that computer is connected to specific models of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) manufactured by Siemens. PLCs are how computers interact with and control industrial machinery like uranium centrifuges. The worm then alters the PLCs’ programming, resulting in the centrifuges being spun too quickly and for too long, damaging or destroying the delicate equipment in the process. While this is happening, the PLCs tell the controller computer that everything is working fine, making it difficult to detect or diagnose what’s going wrong until it’s too late.

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