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Stuxnet-Style Virus Failed to Infiltrate North Korea's Nuclear Program

A cousin of the Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran's nuclear program failed to do the same to North Korea, Reuters reports

2 min read
Stuxnet-Style Virus Failed to Infiltrate North Korea's Nuclear Program
Illustration: iStockphoto

The famous Stuxnet computer virus that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program apparently had a cousin designed to do the same to North Korea. But this other U.S. cyber attack failed because agents could not physically access the isolated computers of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Several U.S. intelligence sources told Reuters that the operation aimed at North Korea took place at the same time as the Stuxnet attack that crippled Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010. The Stuxnet virus worked by hijacking the control software of fast-spinning centrifuges belonging to Iran’s nuclear program. Once activated, Stuxnet caused physical destruction by forcing the centrifuges to spin out of control and tear themselves apart. The U.S. National Security Agency led a similar, unsuccessful effort with a modified Stuxnet aimed at taking down North Korean centrifuges.

Both Iran and North Korea likely use similar centrifuges that can enrich uranium for either civilian purposes or to become weapons-grade nuclear material. That means North Korea probably also uses control software developed by Siemens AG running on some version of Microsoft Windows, experts told Reuters.

Stuxnet, a joint effort between the United States and Israel, worked in three phases to infiltrate and attack its targets. First, it continually infected Microsoft Windows machines and networks while replicating itself. Second, it looked for Siemens Step7 software that forms the foundation of industrial control systems for operating equipment such as centrifuges. Third, it hijacked the programmable logic controllers so that it could provide secret surveillance on the centrifuges or command the centrifuges to act in a self-destructive manner.

The computers running the control systems for centrifuges belonging to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea are isolated from the Internet to avoid providing easy access for cyber attacks. That’s why Stuxnet relied on first spreading stealthily across many Internet-connected machines, in hopes of a worker sticking a USB thumb drive into an infected machine. Stuxnet could then infect the USB drive and eventually make its way to computers isolated from the Internet. (See IEEE Spectrum’s feature “The Real Story of Stuxnet.”)

But North Korea presented an even greater challenge than Iran because of its extreme isolation. Relatively few North Koreans have access to the open Internet, and computer ownership requires registration with the police. In any case, the United States failed to get its Stuxnet-style virus onto the machines controlling North Korea’s centrifuges.

Many experts interviewed by Reuters doubted that a Stuxnet-style virus would have made much impact on North Korea’s nuclear program even if it had succeeded. That’s in part because North Korea likely has at least one other hidden nuclear facility beyond the known Yongbyon nuclear complex. But it’s also because North Korea likely has access to plutonium, which does not depend on the complex uranium enrichment process.

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Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

Peer-to-peer file sharing would make the Internet far more efficient

12 min read
An illustration of a series
Carl De Torres

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

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