Flame virus a new age cyber spy tool

May 31, 2012 by Glenn Chapman
Code from the computer virus known as Flame. The virus that smoldered undetected for years in Middle Eastern energy facilities has confirmed fears that the world has entered a new age of cyber espionage and sabotage, experts say.

The Flame computer virus that smoldered undetected for years in Middle Eastern energy facilities confirmed fears that the world has entered a new age of cyber espionage and sabotage.

Internet defenders on Wednesday were tearing into freshly exposed Flame malware () that could be adapted to spread to critical infrastructures in countries around the world.

While the components and tactics of Flame were considered old school, the gigantic virus's interchangeable software modules and targeted nature were evidence that malware is a potent weapon in the Internet era.

"We are seeing much more specific types of malware and attacks," said McAfee Labs director of security research David Marcus.

"When you talk about a situation where the attacker knows the victim and tailors the malware for the environment it jumps out," he said. "That speaks to good reconnaissance and an attacker who knows what they are doing."

Gathering intelligence on targets and then crafting viruses to exploit specific networks as well as the habits of people using them is "certainly in vogue" and is an attack style heralded by the Stuxnet malware, Marcus said.

Stuxnet, which was detected in July 2010, targeted made by German industrial giant Siemens and commonly used to manage , , and other .

Most Stuxnet infections were discovered in Iran, giving rise to speculation it was intended to sabotage there, especially the Russian-built in the southern city of Bushehr.

Suspicion fell on Israel and the United States, which have accused Iran of seeking to develop a weapons capability under the cover of a civilian nuclear drive. Tehran denies the charges.

"Stuxnet and Duqu belonged to a single chain of attacks, which raised cyberwar-related concerns worldwide," said Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, which uncovered Flame.

"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."

Flame malware was larger than Stuxnet and protected by multiple layers of encryption.

It appears to have been "in the wild" for two years or longer and prime targets so far have been energy facilities in the Middle East.

High concentrations of compromised computers were found in the Palestinian West Bank, Hungary, Iran, and Lebanon. Additional infections have been reported in Austria, Russia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates.

File photo shows Kaspersky Lab employees in Moscow. Kaspersky Lab, one of the world's biggest producers of anti-virus software, said its experts discovered a new computer virus with unprecedented destructive potential that chiefly targets Iran and could be used as a "cyberweapon" by the West and Israel.

Compromised computers included many being used from home connections, according to security researchers who were looking into whether reports of infections in some places resulted from workers using laptops while traveling.

While Stuxnet was crafted to do real-world damage to machinery, Flame was designed to suck information from computer networks and relay what it learned back to those controlling the virus.

Flame can record keystrokes, capture screen images, and eavesdrop using microphones built into computers.

In an intriguing twist, the malware can also use Bluetooth capabilities in machines to connect with smartphones or tablets, mining contact lists or other information, according to security researchers.

"There is lot of intelligence gathering and espionage-like behavior from the malware," Marcus said. "You can turn that to target any industry you want.

"It looks like the infection spread is specific to Middle East, but malware is indiscriminate in a lot of things so it can jump," he continued.

Marcus advised companies to not only keep network software up to date but to ratchet up security settings because threats such as Flame are carefully crafted to "fly under the radar."

For example, Flame reportedly sneaked back out to the Internet by activating a seemingly innocuous Internet Explorer online browsing session.

Geographically targeted cyber espionage and even modular components in viruses have been around for years, Rik Ferguson of security firm Trend Micro said in his blog at countermeasures.trendmicro.eu.

stands out for being a malware behemoth of nearly 20 megabytes and for its use of Bluetooth capabilities, according to Ferguson, who branded the malware a tool, not a weapon.

"You can't get around the fact that the thing is gigantic," Marcus said. "Someone went to a lot of trouble to really confound researchers. We are going to be ripping this sucker apart for a long time to figure everything it was doing."

Explore further: Iran says Duqu malware under 'control'

Related Stories

Iran says Duqu malware under 'control'

November 13, 2011

Iran said on Sunday it had found a way to "control" the computer malware Duqu, which is similar to Stuxnet virus which in 2010 attacked its nuclear programme and infected more than 30,000 computers.

Global wave of Flame cyber attacks called staggering

May 28, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Kaspersky Lab has discovered complex malware that has been in operation for at least five years, collecting data from countries including both Israel and Iran. Kaspersky experts think the masterminds are state-sponsored ...

Stuxnet was 'good idea': former CIA chief

March 2, 2012

The Stuxnet computer virus sabotage of Iran's nuclear program was a "good idea" but it lent legitimacy to the use of malicious software as a weapon, according to a former CIA director.

World's first 'cyber superweapon' attacks China

September 30, 2010

A computer virus dubbed the world's "first cyber superweapon" by experts and which may have been designed to attack Iran's nuclear facilities has found a new target -- China.

Recommended for you

US faces moment of truth on 'net neutrality'

December 14, 2017

The acrimonious battle over "net neutrality" in America comes to a head Thursday with a US agency set to vote to roll back rules enacted two years earlier aimed at preventing a "two-speed" internet.

FCC votes along party lines to end 'net neutrality' (Update)

December 14, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit ...

The wet road to fast and stable batteries

December 14, 2017

An international team of scientists—including several researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory—has discovered an anode battery material with superfast charging and stable operation ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 31, 2012
undetected for years

Some generations ago, computer-virus-technology-wise.
Be cognizant of current digital technology, what might be done with commodity devices. Just imagine all the ways someone with large resources can be stealthy using today's digital devices.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.