Russian computer security giant Kaspersky Lab announced on Monday the discovery of a highly sophisticated malicious program that is actively being used as a cyber weapon attacking entities in several countries. The complexity and functionality of the newly discovered malicious program exceed those of all other cyber menaces known to date.
Kaspersky’s research shows that the largest number of infected machines are in Iran, followed by the Israel/Palestine region, and Sudan and Syria.
Kaspersky Lab is a Moscow headquartered and owned multi-national computer security company, co-founded by Natalia and Eugene Kaspersky in 1997. It is the world’s largest privately held vendor of software security products.
The malware, dubbed Flame, was discovered by Kaspersky Lab’s experts during an investigation prompted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The malicious program, detected as Worm.Win32.Flame, is designed to carry out cyber espionage. It can steal valuable information, including but not limited to computer display contents, information about targeted systems, stored files, contact data and even audio conversations.
Kaspersky was unable to name the maker of the Flame, but experts suspect that the complexity of the program means that it took the resources of a major industrial country, such as China, The U.S., Russia or Israel to create and deploy it.
Last Tuesday, the Iranian oil ministry said that its IT systems had suffered no lasting damage from a suspected cyber-attack, but its experts would require two or three days to investigate and address the impact of the virus.
The virus hit the internet and communications systems of the oil ministry and national oil company late on Sunday of last week, forcing Iran to disconnect the control systems of Kharg Island, which handles the vast majority of Iran’s crude exports, and a number of other oil facilities.
ITU and Kaspersky Lab were following up on a series of such incidents, which they suspect were born by another, still unknown, destructive malware program – code named Wiper – which deleted data on a number of computers in the Western Asia region. This particular malware is yet to be discovered, but during the analysis of those incidents, the experts came across the Flame.
According to Kaspersky Lab, preliminary findings indicate that this malware has been “in the wild” for more than two years – since March, 2010. Due to its extreme complexity, plus the targeted nature of the attacks, no security software detected it.
Although the features of Flame differ from the previous notable cyber weapons, the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear facilities back in 2010, and the data-stealing virus Duqu, the geography of the Flame attacks, the use of specific software vulnerabilities, and the fact that only selected computers are being targeted, indicate that Flame belongs to the same category of super-cyberweapons.
CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab Eugene Kaspersky said that “the risk of cyber warfare has been one of the most serious topics in the field of information security for several years now. Stuxnet and Duqu belonged to a single chain of attacks, which raised cyberwar-related concerns worldwide. 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. Unlike with conventional warfare, the more developed countries are actually the most vulnerable in this case.”
The primary purpose of Flame appears to be cyber espionage, by stealing information from infected machines. Such information is then sent to a network of command-and-control servers located in many different parts of the world.
The diverse nature of the stolen information, which can include documents, screenshots, audio recordings and interception of network traffic, makes it one of the most advanced and complete attack-toolkits ever discovered. The exact infection vector has still to be revealed, but it is already clear that Flame has the ability to replicate over a local network using several methods, including the same printer vulnerability and USB infection method exploited by Stuxnet.
Alexander Gostev, Chief Security Expert at Kaspersky Lab, commented: “One of the most alarming facts is that the Flame cyber-attack campaign is currently in its active phase, and its operator is consistently surveilling infected systems, collecting information and targeting new systems to accomplish its unknown goals.”