November 9, 2012
America’s cyberwar is already seeing collateral damage, and it’s hitting the country’s own billion-dollar companies. Oil giants Chevron say the Stuxnet computer virus made by the US to target Iran infected their systems as well.
California-based Chevron, a Fortune 500 company that’s among the biggest corporations in the world, admits this week that they discovered the Stuxnet worm on their systems back in 2010. Up until now, Chevron managed to make their finding a well-kept secret, and their disclosure published by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday marks the first time a US company has come clean about being infected by the virus intended for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Mark Koelmel of the company’s earth sciences department says that they are likely to not be the last, though.
“We’re finding it in our systems and so are other companies,” says Koelmel. “So now we have to deal with this.”
Koelmel claims that the virus did not have any adverse effects on his company, which generated a quarter of a trillion dollars in revenue during 2011. As soon as Chevron identified the infection, it was taken care of immediately, he says. Other accidental targets might not be so lucky though, and the computer worm’s complex coding means it might be a while before anyone else becomes aware of the damage.
“I don’t think the US government even realized how far it had spread,” Koelmel adds.
Discovered in 2010, the Stuxnet worm was reported with all but certainty to be the creation of the United States, perhaps with the assistance of Israel, to set back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program as a preemptive measure against an eventual war. Only as recently as this June, however, American officials with direct knowledge of the worm went public with Uncle Sam’s involvement.
In a June 2012 article published by The New York Times, government agents with direct knowledge of Stuxnet claimed that first President George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, oversaw the deployment of the worm as part of a well-crafted cyberassault on Iran. Coupled with another malicious program named Flame and perhaps many more, Stuxnet was waged against Iran as part of an initiative given the codename “Olympic Games.” Rather than solely stealing intelligence through use of computer coding, the endeavor was believed to be the first cyberattack that intended to cause actual hard damage.
“Previous cyberattacks had effects limited to other computers,” Michael Hayden, the former chief of the CIA, explained to the Times earlier this year. “This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction.”
On the record, the federal government maintains ignorance on the subject of Stuxnet. With American companies perhaps soon coming out of the woodwork to discuss how they were hit, though, the White House may have to finally admit that they’ve had direct involvement.
After the Times published their expose in June, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of Intelligence Committee, called for an investigation to track down how the media was first made aware of America’s involvement in Olympic Games.
“I am deeply disturbed by the continuing leaks of classified information to the media, most recently regarding alleged cyber efforts targeting Iran’s nuclear program,” Feinstein said through a statement at the time. “I made it clear that disclosures of this type endanger American lives and undermine America’s national security.”
When Feinstein spoke to DC’s The Hill newspaper, she said, “the leak about the attack on Iran’s nuclear program could ‘to some extent’ provide justification for copycat attacks against the United States.” According to the chairwoman, “This is like an avalanche. It is very detrimental and, candidly, I found it very concerning. There’s no question that this kind of thing hurts our country.”
Just last month, a shadowy Iranian-based hacking group called The Qassam Cyber Fighters took credit for launching a cyberattack on the servers of Capital One Financial Corp. and BB&T Corp., two of the biggest names in the American banking industry. Days earlier, Google informed some of its American users that they may be targeted in a state-sponsored cyberattack from abroad, and computer experts insist that these assaults will only intensify over time.
“We absolutely have seen more activity from the Middle East, and in particular Iran has been increasingly active as they build up their cyber capabilities,” CrowdStrike Security President George Kurtz told the Times.
Speaking of the accidental impact Stuxnet could soon have in the US, Chevron’s Koelmel tells the Journal, “I think the downside of what they did is going to be far worse than what they actually accomplished.”