The Stuxnet Computer Worm: Harbinger of an Emerging Warfare Capability – CRS Report

The Stuxnet Computer Worm: Harbinger of an Emerging Warfare Capability - CRS ReportIn September 2010, media reports emerged about a new form of cyber attack that appeared to target Iran, although the actual target, if any, is unknown. Through the use of thumb drives in computers that were not connected to the Internet, a malicious software program known as Stuxnet infected computer systems that were used to control the functioning of a nuclear power plant. Once inside the system, Stuxnet had the ability to degrade or destroy the software on which it operated. Although early reports focused on the impact on facilities in Iran, researchers discovered that the program had spread throughout multiple countries worldwide.

From the perspective of many national security and technology observers, the emergence of the Stuxnet worm is the type of risk that threatens to cause harm to many activities deemed critical to the basic functioning of modern society. The Stuxnet worm covertly attempts to identify and exploit equipment that controls a nation’s critical infrastructure. A successful attack by a software application such as the Stuxnet worm could result in manipulation of control system code to the point of inoperability or long-term damage. Should such an incident occur, recovery from the damage to the computer systems programmed to monitor and manage a facility and the physical equipment producing goods or services could be significantly delayed. Depending on the severity of the attack, the interconnected nature of the affected critical infrastructure facilities, and government preparation and response plans, entities and individuals relying on these facilities could be without life sustaining or comforting services for a long period of time. The resulting damage to the nation’s critical infrastructure could threaten many aspects of life, including the government’s ability to safeguard national security interests.

Iranian officials have claimed that Stuxnet caused only minor damage to its nuclear program, yet the potential impact of this type of malicious software could be far-reaching. The discovery of the Stuxnet worm has raised several issues for Congress, including the effect on national security, what the government’s response should be, whether an international treaty to curb the use of malicious software is necessary, and how such a treaty could be implemented. Congress may also consider the government’s role in protecting critical infrastructure and whether new authorities may be required for oversight.

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