4/23/2012
01:05 PM
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Iran: Oil Industry Hit By Malware Attack

Deja vu all over again as Iranian government-owned systems reportedly targeted by a 'worm'



Officials in the Iranian oil ministry say their network and the country's main oil export terminal were infected with a malware-borne attack that reportedly forced the nation to take those systems offline temporarily.

Word of the apparent worm attack reported by various international news outlets today quickly brought a sense of deja vu and comparisons to the Stuxnet worm that targeted Iran's Natanz facility in 2010. But most security experts say this doesn't appear to be another Stuxnet, which was an obvious nation state-sponsored attack aimed at disarming Iran's nuclear operations.

An Iranian oil ministry spokesperson said in a statement on the ministry's website that the virus attacks yesterday did not affect any major information and that the public servers that were hit are "isolated from the main servers."

The Mehr news agency said the Iranian Oil Ministry, the National Iranian Oil Company, and other businesses with ties to the oil ministry were targeted on Sunday by the worm, but that it was mitigated before it could do serious damage, according to a Dow Jones newswire report.

According to a report by Bloomberg, sources in the Iranian oil industry said a virus was found in the control systems of Kharg Island, where most of Iran's crude oil expert operations reside. The terminal remained up and running during the infection, the sources said.

A server that offered public information was the only one hurt in the attack, Ali Nikzad, a ministry spokesman, told the state-run Fars news agency, according to the Bloomberg report.

Security experts say it's too soon to draw any connections to this attack and Stuxnet or Duqu, for instance.

"Based on information currently available, it would be very premature to suggest that this was targeted against either Iran or systems utilized in oil pipeline/transportation operations -- and indeed make any kind of comparison to Stuxnet," says Tom Parker, chief technology officer at FusionX.

Initial reports indicate that it was the website of the oil ministry that was affected, and not control systems. "So [there is] no indication that it was targeted against oil production systems," Parker says.

[Researchers at Symantec dissect part of new, retooled version of the reconnaissance-gathering malware that's related to Stuxnet. See Duqu Alive And Well: New Variant Found In Iran. ]

The other issue, of course, is the validity of reports and statements that come from the highly censored nation. "Iran also likes to play victim on this sort of stuff, and has done [so] since Stuxnet, so I'd take any info that comes from Iranian officials, or companies with a pinch of salt," Parker says.

Mark Russinovich, technical fellow at Microsoft in Windows Azure, said on Twitter today that he doesn't think the attack was a nation-state operation. "I doubt this was a nation-state attack, but Iran announces that oil terminal was 'offline' after 'malware attack,'" he tweeted today from his account.

Meanwhile, John Bumgarner, a security specialist with the think tank U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, reportedly told Reuters that the purpose of such a malware attack would to be "erase data" and ultimately shut down operations: "The reason you would put a virus inside this network to erase data is because that causes those facilities to have to shut down" and to rebuild servers, he told Reuters. "So during that time the production and refinery operations for Iran could be impacted. And depending on how the virus was written, it could be longer term."

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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