A massive, highly sophisticated piece of malware has been newly found infecting systems in Iran and elsewhere and is believed to be part of a well-coordinated, ongoing, state-run cyberespionage operation.Iran admits losing lots of data to Flame:
Dubbed “Flame” by Kaspersky, the malicious code dwarfs Stuxnet in size – the groundbreaking infrastructure-sabotaging malware that is believed to have wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010. Although Flame has both a different purpose and composition than Stuxnet, and appears to have been written by different programmers, its complexity, the geographic scope of its infections and its behavior indicate strongly that a nation-state is behind Flame, rather than common cyber-criminals — marking it as yet another tool in the growing arsenal of cyberweaponry.
The researchers say that Flame may be part of a parallel project created by contractors who were hired by the same nation-state team that was behind Stuxnet and its sister malware, DuQu.
“Stuxnet and Duqu belonged to a single chain of attacks, which raised cyberwar-related concerns worldwide,” said Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, in a statement. “The Flame malware looks to be another phase in this war, and it’s important to understand that such cyber weapons can easily be used against any country.”
Early analysis of Flame by the Lab indicates that it’s designed primarily to spy on the users of infected computers and steal data from them, including documents, recorded conversations and keystrokes. It also opens a backdoor to infected systems to allow the attackers to tweak the toolkit and add new functionality.
The malware, which is 20 megabytes when all of its modules are installed, contains multiple libraries, SQLite3 databases, various levels of encryption — some strong, some weak — and 20 plug-ins that can be swapped in and out to provide various functionality for the attackers. It even contains some code that is written in the LUA programming language — an uncommon choice for malware.
Kaspersky Lab is calling it “one of the most complex threats ever discovered.”
“It’s pretty fantastic and incredible in complexity,” said Alexander Gostev, chief security expert at Kaspersky Lab.
Flame appears to have been operating in the wild as early as March 2010, though it remained undetected by antivirus companies.
“It’s a very big chunk of code. Because of that, it’s quite interesting that it stayed undetected for at least two years,” Gostev said. He noted that there are clues that the malware may actually date back to as early as 2007, around the same time-period when Stuxnet and DuQu are believed to have been created.
Gostev says that because of its size and complexity, complete analysis of the code may take years.
“It took us half-a-year to analyze Stuxnet,” he said. “This is 20-times more complicated. It will take us 10 years to fully understand everything.”
Kaspersky discovered the malware about two weeks ago after the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union asked the Lab to look into reports in April that computers belonging to the Iranian Oil Ministry and the Iranian National Oil Company had been hit with malware that was stealing and deleting information from the systems. The malware was named alternatively in news articles as “Wiper” and “Viper,” a discrepancy that may be due to a translation mixup.
Kaspersky researchers searched through their reporting archive, which contains suspicious filenames sent automatically from customer machines so the names can be checked against whitelists of known malware, and found an MD5 hash and filename that appeared to have been deployed only on machines in Iran and other Middle East countries. As the researchers dug further, they found other components infecting machines in the region, which they pieced together as parts of Flame.
Kaspersky, however, is currently treating Flame as if it is not connected to Wiper/Viper, and believes it is a separate infection entirely. The researchers dubbed the toolkit “Flame” after the name of a module inside it.
Among Flame’s many modules is one that turns on the internal microphone of an infected machine to secretly record conversations that occur either over Skype or in the computer’s near vicinity; a module that turns Bluetooth-enabled computers into a Bluetooth beacon, which scans for other Bluetooth-enabled devices in the vicinity to siphon names and phone numbers from their contacts folder; and a module that grabs and stores frequent screenshots of activity on the machine, such as instant-messaging and email communications, and sends them via a covert SSL channel to the attackers’ command-and-control servers.
The malware also has a sniffer component that can scan all of the traffic on an infected machine’s local network and collect usernames and password hashes that are transmitted across the network. The attackers appear to use this component to hijack administrative accounts and gain high-level privileges to other machines and parts of the network.
Flame does contain a module named Viper, adding more confusion to the Wiper/Viper issue, but this component is used to transfer stolen data from infected machines to command-and-control servers. News reports out of Iran indicated the Wiper/Viper program that infected the oil ministry was designed to delete large swaths of data from infected systems.
Although the Flame toolkit does not appear to have been written by the same programmers who wrote Stuxnet and DuQu, it does share a few interesting things with Stuxnet.
Stuxnet is believed to have been written through a partnership between Israel and the United States, and was first launched in June 2009. It is widely believed to have been designed to sabotage centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program. DuQu was an espionage tool discovered on machines in Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere in 2011 that was designed to steal documents and other data from machines. Stuxnet and DuQu appeared to have been built on the same framework, using identical parts and using similar techniques.
But Flame doesn’t resemble either of these in framework, design or functionality.
Stuxnet and DuQu were made of compact and efficient code that was pared down to its essentials. Flame is 20 megabytes in size, compared to Stuxnet’s 500 kilobytes, and contains a lot of components that are not used by the code by default, but appear to be there to provide the attackers with options to turn on post-installation.
“It was obvious DuQu was from the same source as Stuxnet. But no matter how much we looked for similarities [in Flame], there are zero similarities,” Gostev said. “Everything is completely different, with the exception of two specific things.”
One of these is an interesting export function in both Stuxnet and Flame, which may turn out to link the two pieces of malware upon further analysis, Gostev said. The export function allows the malware to be executed on the system.
Also, like Stuxnet, Flame has the ability to spread by infecting USB sticks using the autorun and .lnk vulnerabilities that Stuxnet used. It also uses the same print spooler vulnerability that Stuxnet used to spread to computers on a local network. This suggests that the authors of Flame may have had access to the same menu of exploits that the creators of Stuxnet used.
The researchers say they don’t know yet how an initial infection of Flame occurs on a machine before it starts spreading. The malware has the ability to infect a fully patched Windows 7 computer, which suggests that there may be a zero-day exploit in the code that the researchers have not yet found.
Iranian authorities have admitted that malicious software dubbed Flame has attacked it, and instructed to run an urgent inspection of all computer systems in the country.And Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon hinted that Israel might be that state:
Iran's MAHER Center said Tuesday that the Flame virus "has caused substantial damage" and that "massive amounts of data have been lost."
The center, which is part of Iran's Communication's Ministry said that the virus' level of complexity, accuracy and high-functionality – noted mostly by the information corrupted – indicated that there is a "relation" to the Stuxnet virus.
Iranian experts said that Flame was able to overcome 43 different anti-virus programs.
While no one knows who is behind "the most sophisticated virus of all times," the bottom line, computer experts say, is that only a state could have developed such a complex virus.
"Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat will likely take various countermeasures, including, to hurt them," said Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon, in an interview with program "Good Morning Israel" with Golan Yochpaz. "Israel is blessed as a country rich in high technology; these tools we have open all sorts of possibilities to us."(h/t Yoel)