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Who is behind India’s INSAT satellite failure?

October 11, 2010

NEW DELHI: The deadly Stuxnet internet worm, which was thought to be targeting Iran’s nuclear programme, might actually have been aimed at India by none other than China.

Providing a fresh twist in the tale, well-known American cyber warfare expert Jeffrey Carr, who specialises in investigations of cyber attacks against government, told TOI that China, more than any other country, was likely to have written the worm which has terrorised the world since June.

While Chinese hackers are known to target Indian government websites, the scale and sophistication of Stuxnet suggests that only a government no less than that of countries like US, Israel or China could have done it. “I think it’s more likely that China is behind Stuxnet than any other country,” Carr told TOI, adding that he would provide more details at the upcoming NASSCOM DSCI Security Conclave in Chennai in December.

Attributing the partial failure of ISRO’s INSAT 4B satellite a few months ago — the exact reason for which is not yet known — to Stuxnet, Carr said it was China which gained from the satellite failure.

Carr, however, made it clear that he had not arrived at any definite conclusion till now. He said he was pointing out that there were alternative targets in countries other than Iran that also made sense and served another nation’s interest to attack — namely India’s Space Research Organisation which uses the exact Siemens software targeted by Stuxnet.

“Further, the satellite in question (INSAT 4B) suffered the power `glitch’ in an unexplained fashion, and it’s failure served another state’s advantage — in this case China,” he said.

Alongwith Indonesia and Iran, India has had the maximum number of infections from Stuxnet which affects Windows computers and gets transmitted through USB sticks. While Iran and Indonesia had about 60,000 and 13,000 Stuxnet infections respectively till late September, India was at the third position with over 6,000 infections. However, it infects only those computers which use certain Siemens software systems. Siemens software systems are used in many Indian government agencies including ISRO.

As it had impacted Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, it was thought that Iran might have been the intended target. Israel, in fact, had emerged as the prime suspect.

According to Carr, the Siemens software in use in ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre is S7-400 PLC and SIMATIC WinCC, both of which, he said, would activate the Stuxnet worm. The Stuxnet worm was first discovered in June this year, a month before INSAT 4B was hit by the mysterious power failure.

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