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Photo: AP

Photo: AP

Advanced malware ‘Flame’ found in Iran

Advanced malware ‘Flame’ found in Iran

Boston: Security experts said on Monday a highly sophisticated computer virus is infecting computers in Iran and other Middle East countries and may have been deployed at least five years ago to engage in state-sponsored cyber espionage.

Evidence suggest that the virus, dubbed Flame, may have been built on behalf of the same nation or nations that commissioned the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, according to Kaspersky Lab, the Russian cyber security software maker that took credit for discovering the infections.

Photo: AP

Iran has accused the US and Israel of deploying Stuxnet.

Cyber security experts said the discovery publicly demonstrates what experts privy to classified information have long known: that nations have been using pieces of malicious computer code as weapons to promote their security interests for several years.

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“This is one of many, many campaigns that happen all the time and never make it into the public domain," said Alexander Klimburg, a cyber security expert at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs.

A cyber security agency in Iran said on its English website that Flame bore a “close relation" to Stuxnet, the notorious computer worm that attacked that country’s nuclear program in 2010 and is the first publicly known example of a cyber weapon.

Iran’s National Computer Emergency Response Team also said Flame might be linked to recent cyber attacks that officials in Tehran have said were responsible for massive data losses on some Iranian computer systems.

Kaspersky Lab said it discovered Flame after a UN telecommunications agency asked it to analyse data on malicious software across the Middle East in search of the data-wiping virus reported by Iran.

Experts at Kaspersky Lab and Hungary’s Laboratory of Cryptography and System Security who have spent weeks studying Flame said they have yet to find any evidence that it can attack infrastructure, delete data or inflict other physical damage.

Yet they said they are in the early stages of their investigations and that they may discover other purposes beyond data theft.

If Kaspersky’s findings are validated, Flame could go down in history as the third major cyber weapon uncovered after Stuxnet and its data-stealing cousin Duqu, named after the Star Wars villain.

The Moscow-based company is controlled by Russian malware researcher Eugene Kaspersky. It gained notoriety after solving several mysteries surrounding Stuxnet and Duqu.

Officials with Symantec Corp. and Intel Corp. McAfee security division, the top 2 makers of anti-virus software, said they were studying Flame.

“It seems to be more complex than Duqu but it’s too early to tell its place in history," said Dave Marcus, director of advanced research and threat intelligence with McAfee.

Symantec security response manager Vikram Thakur said that his company’s experts believed there was a “high" probability that Flame was among the most complex pieces of malicious software ever discovered.

Kaspersky’s research shows the largest number of infected machines are in Iran, followed by Israel and the Palestinian territories, then Sudan and Syria.

The virus contains about 20 times as much code as Stuxnet, which caused centrifuges to fail at the Iranian enrichment facility it attacked.

Flame can gather data files, remotely change settings on computers, turn on PC microphones to record conversations, take screen shots and log instant messaging chats.

Kaspersky Lab said Flame and Stuxnet appear to infect machines by exploiting the same flaw in the Windows operating system and that both viruses employ a similar way of spreading.

The question of who built flame is sure to become a hot topic in the security community as well as the diplomatic world.

The US defence department, CIA, state department, National Security Agency, and US Cyber Command declined to comment.

Jim Wolf in Washington, Daniel Fineran in Dubai and William Maclean in London contributed to this story.

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Also Read | Views | Flamer: Splaying the Internet with potent worms

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