A malicious code that may have been a top-secret effort to thwart Iran's nuclear program appears to be back in business. But this time, it may not only be a threat to the global ambitions of ayatollahs.
That's the warning of software and services firm Symantec, which announced the threat on a company blog Tuesday after a client provided samples of code that could be "the next Stuxnet." Symantec did not name the client but said it was a research lab "with strong international connections."
Duqu is a remote access Trojan, or RAT, that collects information that could be used for later attacks.
Variants of the threat, dubbed "Duqu" [pronounced dyü-kyü] because its files carry the prefix DQ, were detected as recently as Monday. Duqu appears to have been aimed at a limited number of manufacturing companies. The samples were recovered from systems in Europe and Symantec, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., confirmed that parts of the virus are nearly identical to Stuxnet, which caused mayhem for Iran's uranium enrichment program in the summer of 2010.
Other systems running Siemens industrial software were also affected, but since 60 percent of computers infected were in Iran, there was wide speculation by security specialists that it was created by American or Israeli intelligence operatives, or a collaboration of both.
Duqu's intentions are more amorphous, leaving computer security experts scrambling not just to identify and counter the virus but to decipher its goal.
"From a code analysis standpoint it is quite clear that Duqu's authors had access to at least some of the source code from Stuxnet," said senior analyst Chet Wisniewsky of the security firm Sophos. "Whether it is the same group or what their intentions are, is hard to tell. Considering that this malware can download additional components it makes it much more difficult to determine the intent than Stuxnet."
Targeting Design Documents
Symantec said Duqu is "essentially the precursor to a future Stuxnet-like attack. The threat was written by the same authors (or those that have access to the Stuxnet source code) and appears to have been created since the last Stuxnet file was recovered. Duqu's purpose is to gather intelligence data and assets from entities, such as industrial control system manufacturers, in order to more easily conduct a future attack against another third party. The attackers are looking for information such as design documents that could help them mount a future attack on an industrial control facility."
Symantec said that while the payload of Stuxnet was intended to sabotage an industrial control system, Duqu's payload is general remote access capabilities.
Symantec said that while the threat was aimed at a limited number of organizations it may well be that there are others under attack, as-yet-undetected.
In an update on Tuesday, Symantec said part of the malware had been linked to a Symantec in Taipei, Taiwan, and the company revoked that customer's code-signing certificate, but now believes the code was stolen and not generated for hacking purposes.