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

A word to describe Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw was hyperbole. While the general storyline from the 1996 book was accurate, filler was written that created the legend of Kevin Mitnick. This in turn makes the book a near work of historical fiction.

Much has changed in nearly 20 years and Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon has certainly upped the ante for accurate computer security journalism.

The book is a fascinating read and author Kim Zetter's attention to detail and accuracy is superb. In the inside cover of the book, Kevin Mitnick describes this as an ambitious, comprehensive and engrossing book. The irony is not lost in that Mitnick was dogged by misrepresentations in Markoff’s book.

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For those that want to know the basics about Stuxnet, its Wikipedia entry will suffice. For a deeper look, the book take a detailed look at how the Stuxnet worm of 2010 came to be, how it was written, discovered and deciphered, and what it means for the future.

The book provides nearly everything that can be known to date about Stuxnet. The need to create Stuxnet was the understanding that a nuclear Iran was dangerous to the world. The book notes that it just wasn’t the US and Israel that wanted a nuclear-free Iran; Egypt and Saudi Arabia were highly concerned about the dangers a nuclear Iran would bring to the region.

What is eminently clear is that Iran chronically lied about their nuclear intentions and actions (chapter 17 notes that former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the international community that they had to do something over Iran’s serial deception of many years) and that the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was powerless to do anything, save for monitoring and writing reports.

While some may debate if Stuxnet was indeed the world's first digital weapon, it’s undeniable that it is the first piece of known malware that could be considered a cyber-weapon. Stuxnet was unlike any other previous malware. Rather than just hijacking targeted computers or stealing information from them, it created physical destruction on centrifuges the software controlled.

At just over 400 pages, the book is a bit wordy, but Zetter does a wonderful job of keeping the book extremely readable and the narrative enthralling. Writing about debugging virus code, descriptions about the Siemens industrial programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and Step7 software (which was what Stuxnet was attacking) could easily be mind-numbingly boring, save for Zetter’s ability to make it a compelling read.

While a good part of the book details the research Symantec, Kaspersky Lab and others did to debug Stuxnet, the book doesn’t list a single line of code, which makes it quite readable for the non-programmer. The book is technical and Zetter gets into the elementary details of how Stuxnet operated; from reverse engineering, digital certificates and certificate authorities, cryptographic hashing and much more. The non-technical reader certainly won’t be overwhelmed, but at the same time might not be able to appreciate what went into designing and making Stuxnet work.

As noted earlier, the book is extremely well researched and all significant claims are referenced. The book is heavily footnoted, which makes the book much more readable than the use of endnotes. Aside from the minor error of mistakenly calling Kurt Gödel a cryptographer (he was a logician) on page 295, Zetter’s painstaking attention to detail is to be commended.

Whoever wrote Stuxnet counted on the Iranians not having the skills to uncover or decipher the malicious attacks on their own. But as Zetter writes, they also didn’t anticipate the crowdsourced wisdom of the hive – courtesy of the global cybersecurity community that would handle the detection and analysis for them. That detection and analysis spanned continents and numerous countries.

The book concludes with chapter 19 Digital Pandora which departs from the details of Stuxnet and gets into the bigger picture of what cyber-warfare means and its intended and unintended consequences. There are no simple answers here and the stakes are huge.

The chapter quotes Marcus Ranum who is outspoken on the topic of cyber-warfare. At the 2014 MISTI Infosec World Conference, Ranum gave a talk on Cyberwar: Putting Civilian Infrastructure on the Front Lines, Again. Be it the topic or Marcus being Marcus, a third of the participants left within the first 15 minutes. They should have stayed, as Ranum, agree with him or not, provided some riveting insights on the topic.

The book leave with two unresolved questions; who did it, and how did it get into the air-gapped Nantanz enrichment facility.

It is thought the US with some assistance from Israel created Stuxnet; but Zetter also writes that Germany and Great Britain may have done the work or at least provided assistance.

It’s also unknown how Stuxnet got into the air-gapped facility. It was designed to spread via an infected USB flash drive. It’s thought that since they couldn’t get into the facility, what needed to be done was to infect computers belonging to a few outside firms that sold devices that would in turn be connected to the facility. The book identified a few of these companies, but it’s still unclear if they were the ones, or the perpetrators somehow had someone on the inside.

As to zero day in the title, what was unique about Stuxnet is that it contained 5 zero day exploits. Zero day is also relevant in that Zetter describes the black and gray markets of firms that discover zero-day vulnerabilities who in turn sell them to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Creating Stuxnet was a huge challenge that took scores of programmers from a nation state many months to create. Writing a highly readable and engrossing book about the obscure software vulnerabilities that it exploited was also a challenge, albeit one that few authors could do efficaciously. In Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon, Kim Zetter has written one of the best computer security narratives; a book you will likely find quite hard to put down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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