Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon

Kim Zetter

Language: English

Pages: 448

ISBN: 0770436196

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Top cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter tells the story behind the virus that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear efforts and shows how its existence has ushered in a new age of warfare—one in which a digital attack can have the same destructive capability as a megaton bomb.
In January 2010, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency noticed that centrifuges at an Iranian uranium enrichment plant were failing at an unprecedented rate. The cause was a complete mystery—apparently as much to the technicians replacing the centrifuges as to the inspectors observing them.
Then, five months later, a seemingly unrelated event occurred: A computer security firm in Belarus was called in to troubleshoot some computers in Iran that were crashing and rebooting repeatedly.
 At first, the firm’s programmers believed the malicious code on the machines was a simple, routine piece of malware. But as they and other experts around the world investigated, they discovered a mysterious virus of unparalleled complexity.
They had, they soon learned, stumbled upon the world’s first digital weapon. For Stuxnet, as it came to be known, was unlike any other virus or worm built before: Rather than simply hijacking targeted computers or stealing information from them, it escaped the digital realm to wreak actual, physical destruction on a nuclear facility. 
In these pages, Wired journalist Kim Zetter draws on her extensive sources and expertise to tell the story behind Stuxnet’s planning, execution, and discovery, covering its genesis in the corridors of Bush’s White House and its unleashing on systems in Iran—and telling the spectacular, unlikely tale of the security geeks who managed to unravel a sabotage campaign years in the making.
But Countdown to Zero Day ranges far beyond Stuxnet itself. Here, Zetter shows us how digital warfare developed in the US. She takes us inside today’s flourishing zero-day “grey markets,” in which intelligence agencies and militaries pay huge sums for the malicious code they need to carry out infiltrations and attacks. She reveals just how vulnerable many of our own critical systems are to Stuxnet-like strikes, from nation-state adversaries and anonymous hackers alike—and shows us just what might happen should our infrastructure be targeted by such an attack.
Propelled by Zetter’s unique knowledge and access, and filled with eye-opening explanations of the technologies involved, Countdown to Zero Day is a comprehensive and prescient portrait of a world at the edge of a new kind of war.

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installed, and the majority of those were in Iran as well—217, as opposed to a mere 16 machines in the United States.8 The infection numbers were way out of sync with previous patterns of worldwide outbreaks, in which Iran never placed high, if at all, in the infection stats. Even in outbreaks that began in the Middle East or Central Asia, Iran never tracked high on the charts. It seemed clear that they were looking at a targeted attack focused on the Islamic Republic. But if the attackers were

valves were specific to the configuration at Natanz and would have required foreknowledge of the exact components Iran planned to install at the plant, as well as intelligence about their precise configuration and operation. For the timestamps in these code blocks to be reliable, the programmers would have had to know in 2001 what equipment was going to be installed at a plant that wasn’t even constructed yet. That part is not as outlandish as it seems: Iran had already tested its uranium

plant to maturity—Natanz began enriching uranium in 2007, but technicians were still installing new cascades and working out the kinks—or if something sinister was at play. The latter wouldn’t have been a surprise. Natanz was the focus of intense international scrutiny, and it was no secret that there were many who would do anything to shut it down. In fact, they’d been trying to do so for nearly a decade. THE ANCIENT TOWN of Natanz is located about two hundred miles south of Tehran and is home

had been removed from half of them and only six of the A26 cascades were now enriching. The total number of centrifuges enriching at Natanz had dropped to 3,936, a decrease of 984 in five months. What’s more, although new machines were still being installed, none of them were being fed gas. In A28 as well, seventeen cascades were now installed, but none of these nearly 3,000 centrifuges was enriching gas. Clearly there were problems with the cascades, and technicians had no idea what they were.

candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were battling it out for the lead in the polls. President Bush was just beginning the final lap of his presidency when, during a visit to Israel to mark that country’s sixtieth anniversary, he was confronted with a bold request. The Israelis wanted US support and endorsement for an air strike to take out the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The Israelis had been gunning for an air strike since at least 2003, when IAEA inspectors got their first look at

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