MySci Round-Up November 16: Was Stuxnet a Secret Weapon?

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There’s rumors on the Internets that Stuxnet, the mysterious malware that has attacked thousands—possibly millions—of computers around the world since its discovery in June, actually was a U.S. or Israeli cyber-weapon aimed at the Iranian nuclear program. Now, researchers at Symantec, the antivirus software giant, say in 
a blog post that they’ve found additional evidence that that the attack was intended to thwart Iranian efforts to enrich uranium that the U.S. and other countries fear will be used for nuclear weapons.

Previously, malware experts had determined that Stuxnet, which infects Windows OS computers, is designed to search for Programmable Logic Controllers, a type of computer that controls

industrial processes. Stuxnet steals code and hides itself using a classic Windows rootkit, a malware component that manipulates the auditing, record-keeping and execution flow of a computer. It then stealthily blocks parts of the computer’s programming software, potentially causing equipment controlled by the computer to malfunction. (According to an August Symantec blog post, such software booby traps can do serious damage; after a hacker used malware to instruct computers controlling a pipeline to allow pressure to rise beyond its capacity, the result was a three-kiloton explosion.)

Now, Symantec’s Eric Chien writes that Stuxnet further targeted equipment produced by two specific vendors—one Finnish, one Iranian—that controls high-speed motors. Stuxnet subtly but devastatingly sabotages the equipment by by altering its frequency, causing the motors to malfunction.

Reuters reports that such equipment is only used in a narrow range of industrial functions, including the gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium. Ivanka Barzashka, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, told the news service that “if Symantec’s analysis is true, then Stuxnet likely aimed to destroy Iran’s gas centrifuges, which could produce enriched uranium for both nuclear fuel and nuclear bombs.” In theory, another expert noted, Stuxnet could cause a centrifuge to vibrate so intensely that it would explode.

IT World blogger Kevin Fogarty writes that other details indicate the Iranian nuclear program was Stuxnet’s intended victim. The malware initially was discovered on an Iranian computer, he writes, and more Iranian machines have been hit by Stuxnet than those from any other country. Finally, Stuxnet’s “most sharply focused functions are ones that would slow or damage production in a nuclear fuel plant but not, presumably, in one producting Diet Coke.”

Now, for the rest of the science and tech news.

Bats gauge sounds with neural teamwork. Their brains zero in on certain sounds, such as anger or distress calls, while paying less attention to less-important noises.

Is email dead? At least one news site headline writer thinks that Facebook’s new thingamajiggy will see to it. He or she also possibly is worrying about the effect that the telegraph will have on letter-writing.

T-Rex’s big tail was key to its hunting prowess. Maybe Sir Mix-A-Lot will come out of retirement and write a rap song about this.

Japanese space probe is first to bring asteroid dust back to Earth. The sample, harvested in 2005, contains a mineral not found on Earth’s surface.

Chinese scientists devise way to create artificial black holes in laboratory. Just be careful not to fall into it.