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Security Response

Stuxnet Introduces the First Known Rootkit for Industrial Control Systems

Created: 06 Aug 2010 19:01:51 GMT • Updated: 23 Jan 2014 18:25:50 GMT • Translations available: 日本語
Nicolas Falliere's picture
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As we’ve explained in our recent W32.Stuxnet blog series, Stuxnet infects Windows systems in its search for industrial control systems, often generically (but incorrectly) known as SCADA systems. Industrial control systems consist of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), which can be thought of as mini-computers that can be programmed from a Windows system. These PLCs contain special code that controls the automation of industrial processes—for instance, to control machinery in a plant or a factory. Programmers use software (e.g., on a Windows PC) to create code and then upload their code to the PLCs.

Previously, we reported that Stuxnet can steal code and design projects and also hide itself using a classic Windows rootkit, but unfortunately it can also do much more. Stuxnet has the ability to take advantage of the programming software to also upload its own code to the PLC in an industrial control system that is typically monitored by SCADA systems. In addition, Stuxnet then hides these code blocks, so when a programmer using an infected machine tries to view all of the code blocks on a PLC, they will not see the code injected by Stuxnet. Thus, Stuxnet isn’t just a rootkit that hides itself on Windows, but is the first publicly known rootkit that is able to hide injected code located on a PLC.

In particular, Stuxnet hooks the programming software, which means that when someone uses the software to view code blocks on the PLC, the injected blocks are nowhere to be found. This is done by hooking enumeration, read, and write functions so that you can’t accidentally overwrite the hidden blocks as well.

Stuxnet contains 70 encrypted code blocks that appear to replace some “foundation routines” that take care of simple yet very common tasks, such as comparing file times and others that are custom code and data blocks. Before some of these blocks are uploaded to the PLC, they are customized depending on the PLC.

By writing code to the PLC, Stuxnet can potentially control or alter how the system operates. A previous historic example includes a reported case of stolen code that impacted a pipeline. Code was secretly “Trojanized” to function properly and only some time after installation instruct the host system to increase the pipeline's pressure beyond its capacity. This resulted in a three kiloton explosion, about 1/5 the size of the Hiroshima bomb.

Thus, in addition to cleaning up the Stuxnet malware, administrators with machines infected with Stuxnet need to audit for unexpected code in their PLC devices. We are still examining some of the code blocks to determine exactly what they do and will have more information soon on how Stuxnet impacts real-world industrial control systems. 

Finally, we’ve reserved the in-depth technical details on how Stuxnet achieves this rootkit functionality for a future technical whitepaper, which will delve into other features of Stuxnet as well that we haven’t had a chance to blog about. For example, a couple of other interesting things include the fact that it uses an infection counter before deleting itself (it is set to ‘3’) and also can use MS08-067, the same vulnerability used by Downadup (a.k.a. Conficker) to spread.

So, please stay tuned.