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Stuxnet was the first cyber weapon to be developed and utilized in an act of strategic sabotage (attacking SCADA systems). Its origins are still unclear although there are theories about who might have been behind the attack. It is a very special piece of code targeting a very distinct setup. A total of seven vulnerabilities were found (four of them zero day attacks) for propagating, hiding, taking over and executing. Also, it used two different (stolen) signed certificates to make Windows believe its .dll files were legit. Unlike other worms or trojans it is quite huge and implements several programming languages. Interestingly it also has an “expiry date” where it would stop working. If not for coincidence it might never have been discovered.


Targeted software and hardware setup

  • Operating system: 32-bit Windows Operating System (2k, XP, 2003, Vista, Server 2008, 7, Server 2008 R2)
  • PLC programming software: Siemens STEP7
  • Hardware: S7-315-2/S7-417 programmable logic controllers with specific PROFIBUS VFD


  • Over 500KBytes of code in several languages (mostly C and C++)
  • Seven different ways to propagate, hide and replicate – four of them zero day exploits
  • Two stolen certificates (RealTek Semiconductor and JMicron Technology) to appear legitimate
  • Dropper / Worm (propagating by itself), Rootkit (by hiding itself and taking over the centrifuge controllers), Command&Control (by reporting to two servers outside and acquiring updates), SQL Injection, Man-in-the-Middle (by presenting “recorded” data to the monitors of the vaults while attacking), Process Injection
  • Detailed knowledge about the targets was necessary to develop this malware
  • Two different attack patterns – gas pressure and spin speed – which had very specific conditions and were not meant to destroy immediately but rather delay the uranium enrichment
  • Development of Stuxnet (according to various sources) required a team of five to ten programmers working full-time for at least six months

Four Zero-Day Attacks

Zero Day Attacks target vulnerabilities that have not yet been found and therefore also not been patched giving attackers huge advantages. Finding these vulnerabilities and developing working exploits costs a lot of time, money and human resources.


  • Shortcut "LNK" Files Automatic File Execution vulnerability (CVE-2010-2568): Bypassing disabled auto-run allowing auto-execution
  • Print Spooler Service Impersonation vulnerability (CVE-2010-2729): Installing .exe to %System% Folder that loads .dll file


  • Task Scheduler Escalation of Privilege vulnerability (CVE-2010-3888): Starting the .dll as a new process with administrator rights (Windows Vista / Windows 7 / Windows Server R2)
  • Local Privilege Escalation vulnerability (CVE-2010-2743): Starting the .dll as a new process within csrss.exe (Windows XP / Windows 2000)

Story of Stuxnet

Historical background

In April 2006 Iran announced they have successfully enriched uranium refusing to give in to international demands to close its nuclear program. From February to November 2007 about 3000 new centrifuges were installed in Natanz, a uranium enrichment plant. In the same year the US Congress released $400 million for covert operations called "Olympic Games" against Iran´s nuclear program as Israel felt threatened by it due to their proximity to Iran. After Israel threatened physical violence, the US knew they had to find a solution.

In 2008 Israel again approached the US hoping for help with an airstrike on Natanz but the US leaders feared this would lead to a wide-range war and since the US was in hot political water already, they did not want to start another war. This is why they thought about sabotaging Iran with them knowing it.

Throughout 2009 the number of centrifuges at Natanz was increased to 8700 and on at least one occasion President Ahmadinejad proudly led a tour through the plant providing the world with videos and images of the control rooms and centrifuges.

Early 2010 the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors that periodically visited Natanz, noticed a huge number of centrifuges being replaced. Later that year Stuxnet was discovered and with it the cause for all the failing centrifuges.

Centrifuges were important for the development of nuclear weapons because they can spin at a rapid speed to separate different isotopes of uranium.


The first person to encounter what was later known as Stuxnet was Sergey Ulason at VirusBlokAda, Belarus in June 2010. One of their customers in Iran contacted them because their computer kept crashing.

Ulason and his colleagues discovered several interesting factors about the malware they were presented with including the replication methods, the ability to hide in other processes and the usage of stolen certificates to legitimize to antivirus programs and Windows security.

They contacted Microsoft and RealTek to inform them about their discovery. As neither of the companies reacted, they finally posted their findings online but it took a blog article by Brian Krebs on to gain attention.

Symantec started their own research on Stuxnet as it was be then named. Also Ralph Langner, a German cybersecurity specialist and expert on industrial control systems, turned his attention on Stuxnet and finds clues that it targets a very special environment and only two Siemens PLC models.

By the time Stuxnet was discovered, the scientists had to replace over 1.000 centrifuges and the cascades were only working at 45-65 percent. By September 2010, the researchers found out that about 100.000 computers worldwide had been infected. From these machines, over 60 percent were located in Iran which gave researchers a good idea about the original target.


Both evidence and motive indicate that the US and the Israeli were involved in the attack, as they both have the means financially and in terms of human resources. Additionally both countries maintain research facilities that could have been used to test the malware on the same setup as found in Natanz. Other sources mention China and Russia but no one has ever admitted anything. Even Iran denies that the closure of Natanz happened as a consequence of a cyber attack.


Stuxnet can spread in a variety of ways, as shown in the Figure "Stuxnet Propagation". Stuxnet spreads by infecting removable drives and copying itself over the network using a variety of means, including two Zero-Day exploits. Stuxnet also spreads by copying itself into Step 7 projects using a technique that causes Stuxnet to run automatically when the project is opened. This section introduces the distribution routines via the network, removable drive and the Step-7 projects.

Stuxnet Propagation

Propagation via removable media

The real goal of Stuxnet are the computers that control the centrifuges. These are referred to as PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and are special computers that are used to control electronic devices or systems, such as industrial systems. The PLCs are connected to computers which control and monitor these PLCs, and usually neither are connected to the Internet. Hence, Stuxnet needed another vector to reach these computers. One way was to propagate through USB flash drives. The different versions of Stuxnet use different ways for this: newer versions use a Windows-LNK vulnerability and older versions use a vulnerability in the autorun.inf file, both of which are examined in more detail below.

LNK vulnerbility (CVE-2010-2568)

Stuxnet registers a code on an infected Windows computer that copies Stuxnet to the drive when a USB drive is inserted. Interestingly, an existing copy of Stuxnet on the external drive will be removed if that drive has already infected three computers. In addition to the Stuxnet DLL and a loader for this DLL, the malware creates four .lnk files on the removable drive. These are used to run the loader when a user is viewing the drive.

To make sure that Stuxnet would reach its target, the attackers made sure to infect every version of Windows operating systems released after Windows 2000. An infected flash drive contained six malicious shortcut files. The first four files related to the different versions of operating systems. The .LNK files executed on Windows 7, the second one on Windows Vista and the last two executed on Windows XP, Windows server 2003 and Windows 2000.


An autorun.inf file is a file that causes Windows to automatically run a file on removable media when the media is inserted into the computer. Older versions of Stuxnet place an autorun.inf file on flash drives that are inserted into an infected computer. However, instead of using a separate file, it inserts the code for itself directly into the autorun file, along with valid commands to infect the computer with that code. Windows ignores the Stuxnet data portion because it ignores invalid commands in an autorun.inf file.

Propagation over the network

Stuxnet can use shared Windows folders to spread over a local network. It places a dropper file on any shares on remote computers and schedules a task to run. According to ESET, the task will be scheduled for the next day, while according to Symantec it should run two minutes after the file is shared.

Zero-Day-Exploit (MS10-061) in print-spooler

This exploit was special kind of zero-day in that it had been found before the creators of Stuxnet used it. Information along with source code had been published in a Polish security magazine in April 2009. However, the information about this vulnerability never reached Microsoft which made it possible for Stuxnet creators to use it to spread the virus within a network. It has later been patched by Microsoft in MS10-061. It was also the only zero-day found in the first version of Stuxnet.

This zero-day made any system which had shared print rights in a network vulnerable. It allowed a remote user to copy files into the Windows %SYSTEM% directory to which users have no access. There were two phases to this exploit. It first went though the injection phase where a dropper and the files “winsta.exe” and “sysnullevent.mof” are copied into the directory. It did that by improperly impersonating a client who sent the two files to be printed to files in the directory.

The execution phase then triggered these two files. A dropper is a malicious program that is designed to spread malware other computers. In the execution phase, the sysnullevent.mof file was used. This was a Managed Object Format or MOF for short and it is used to create or register providers or events. This file also ran the winst.exe file which would result in the infection of the system.

SMB vulnerbility MS08-067

If a remote computer has this vulnerability, Stuxnet can send a bad path over SMB (a protocol for sharing files and other resources between computers), allowing arbitrary code to be run on the remote computer. This vulnerability allowed Stuxnet to execute code on a remote host if an affected system received a specially crafted RPC (Remote Procedure Call) request. On Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2000, Stuxnet could exploit this vulnerability without authentication and run arbitrary code. For Stuxnet it was possible to use this vulnerability in the crafting of a wormable exploit.[1]

Propagation via Step7-Projects

Via Step7 projects, Stuxnet infects industrial control projects from Siemens SIMATIC Step7 that are opened on an infected computer. This is done by modifying DLLs (Windows Dynamic Link Library; a library with commonly used objects: code, data and resources) and an .exe file in the WinCC Simatic Manager so that they can also execute Stuxnet code. Stuxnet inserts the additional code into Step7 project directories.


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  • Ben Buchanan. The Hacker and the State. Harvard University Press, 2020
  • Nicolas Falliere, Liam O Murchu, and Eric Chien. W32. Stuxnet dossier. White paper, Symantec Corp., Security Response, 5(6):29, 2011
  • D.E. Sanger. Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. Crown, 2012
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  1. Microsoft, Microsoft Security Bulletin MS08-067 - Critical, ([2] accessed 31.10.2021)