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Stuxnet explained: How code can destroy machinery and stop (or start) a war

Josh Fruhlinger | Aug. 23, 2017
We now live in a world where computer malware causes destruction at a physical level.

"It was very exciting that we’d made this breakthrough," he added. "But then we realized what we had got ourselves into — probably an international espionage operation — and that was quite scary." Symantec released this information in September of 2010; analysts in the west had known since the end of 2009 that the Iranians had been having problems with their centrifuges, but only know understood why.


Stuxnet documentary

Alex Gibney, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind films like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Going Clear, directed Zero Days, which explains the history of Stuxnet's discovery and its impact on relations between Iran and the west. Zero Days includes interviews with O'Murchu and some of his colleagues, and is available in full on YouTube.

One dramatic sequence shows how the Symantec team managed to drive home Stuxnet's ability to wreak real-world havoc: they programmed a Siemens PLC to inflate a balloon, then infected the PC it was controlled by with Stuxnet. The results were dramatic: despite only being programmed to inflate the balloon for five seconds, the controller kept pumping air into until it burst.

The destruction of the Iranian uranium centrifuges, which followed the same logic—they were spun too quickly and destroyed themselves—was perhaps less visually exciting, but was ultimately just as dramatic. As the documentary explains, we now live in a world where computer malware code is causing destruction at a physical level. It's inevitable that we'll see more in the future.


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