Duqu Worm Causing Collateral Damage in a Silent Cyber-War

News Analysis: Duqu and its predecessor Stuxnet are causing global damage to data systems that had nothing to do with the cyber-war that created them.

One of the most sobering things I had to do during my naval career was to check the aim on the big guns on the ship to make sure that the explosive shells fell on the target with sufficient accuracy that they eliminated the target and as little else as possible.

I did this by sitting inside a gun director-a small rotating turret high on the superstructure of the ship. My job was to watch and pull a switch when the aim was right. Then I'd watch the target vanish in a flash.

Besides making sure we hit the right target, I was responsible for reducing as much as possible the collateral damage caused by the explosion. And make no mistake, naval gunfire is highly effective and a miss can cause devastation. Today many of the latest weapons chosen by one state to attack another don't cause explosions. Instead, they disrupt computer systems and sometimes destroy the things those computers control. The damage is just as real, but the shot is silent and it comes seemingly from nowhere.

The first of these weapons was Stuxnet, which was designed to ruin Iran's nuclear production capability by destroying its uranium enrichment centrifuges. Now comes a similar weapon called Duqu. Right now, no one knows for sure who launched Duqu, but like Stuxnet it has created significant collateral damage.

What we do know about Duqu is that it shares a number of common characteristics with Stuxnet. Both worms exploit zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows, but neither really steals anything of monetary value. Both rely on command and control systems located far from where they do their damage. Duqu originally used servers in India, then in Belgium. All of the known command and control services have been shut down.

Fortunately, Stuxnet alerted security researchers around the world to this type of activity, so Duqu was detected in short order by researchers at the Laboratory of Cryptography and System Security at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Researchers there discovered the worm and worked with researchers at Symantec todiscover its nature and its means of spreading through infected Microsoft Word files.

It's notable that Duqu is apparently designed to gather intelligence that will eventually lead to another Stuxnet-like attack. It includes a keylogger and a means of transmitting the information gathered to another computer. ASymantec white paper contends that the authors of Duqu had access to the Stuxnet source code, which means that they are the same people who created Stuxnet or they are allied with those people.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...