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‘AC/DC virus’ attacks Iranian nuke plant; DHS issues alert to U.S. industry

The Australian rockers in Norway in 2008.

The Australian rockers in Norway in 2008. // Sara Johannessen/AP file photo

This story was updated to include a comment from cyber expert Mikko Hypponen.

A supposed Iranian scientist emailed a world-renowned cybersecurity researcher to report a virus that blared music by the Australian rock band AC/DC while stopping equipment at the Natanz nuclear plant -- one day before America’s cyber emergency team issued two warnings about similar attacks.

The U.S. Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team alerts alluded to Siemens software exploits resembling Stuxnet -- the virus that crippled Natanz’s centrifuges in 2010.

There was “some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC,” reads one email from the Iranian that Mikko H. Hypponen, chief research officer at antivirus firm F-Secure, posted to his blog on Monday.

The scientist began the note by stating, “I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.”

The hackers had access to the nuclear program’s virtual private network, the Iranian added. “The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down,” said the scientist, who admitted knowing little about cyber issues.

Hypponen said he didn’t know what to make of the messages, three of which arrived on Sunday. But he was able to confirm that the purported researcher was sending and receiving emails from within the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

On Monday, ICS-CERT, part of the Homeland Security Department, announced that Siemens has released an update to fix a “hijacking vulnerability” reported by the German firm. If not resolved, an attacker could abuse the flaw to meddle with systems controlling critical operations in the energy, water and chemical sectors, among other industries, according to ICS-CERT.

The Siemens threat described in the advisory works by overriding a file collection, called a Dynamic Link Library, that performs functions so software programs load the attacker’s dangerous operations instead of the legit preset ones. So-called DLL hijacking is made possible when developers do not instruct software programs where to search for the correct file library.

A separate notice distributed the same day cautioned industries about a weakness that “allows an attacker to gain unauthorized access” by using default logins “to read from or write to files and settings on the target system.”

On Wednesday morning, Hypponen told Nextgov he is "quite sure” the cyber incidents reported by the Iranian scientist and ICS-CERT are not related.

The Thunderstruck strike – if real -- is one of several computer infections aimed at Iran. In June, the New York Times reported that America and Israel united in slipping Iran the Stuxnet virus to sabotage its nuclear aspirations. Around the same time, Kaspersky Labs uncovered a behemoth malicious code called Flame that has been exploiting computers in the Middle East to spy on activities there since before Stuxnet. That bug funnels all sorts of intelligence back to its handlers, including screenshots, audio and documents.

Malware that resembles a slipshod Flame, called Mahdi, was discovered probing computers in Iran and countries worldwide earlier in July. Unlike the discreet Flame, Mahdi -- a word for the Islamic messiah -- tricks targeted users into, among other things, opening an infected email attachment that appeals to their tastes -- such as a news article about Israel’s plan to jam Iranian emergency communications.

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