Flame analysis reveals more cyberespionage malware

There's 'enough evidence' to show at least one Flame-related malware is still 'operating in the wild,' said one researcher

An analysis of servers used to control the Flame cyberespionage malware that mostly targeted computers in the Middle East indicate that several other related malware existed -- with one still operating.

Kaspersky Lab, Symantec and other researchers released details of their research on Monday. Other key findings indicated a highly sophisticated operation in which a variety of defensive mechanisms were used to cover the attackers' tracks.

Researchers examined two of the command-and-control servers behind Flame and discovered that they communicated with at least three other Flame-related programs. "There is enough evidence to prove that at least one Flame-related malware is operating in the wild," Alexander Gostev, chief security expert for Kaspersky, said in a statement.

There is no indication that the servers controlled any other malware besides Flame, which has been linked to Stuxnet, another espionage malware.  While Flame's purpose was to steal data, the U.S. and Israeli governments created Stuxnet as part of a secret operation with the goal of crippling Iran's nuclear program, The New York Times reported. 

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The new Flame analysis revealed that four developers working since December 2006 built the malware system that targeted Middle Eastern states, particularly Iran and Palestine. Because the expensive operation infected a relatively small number of computers and lacked a clear moneymaking strategy is an indication that it was government funded.

"It's not stealing credit card numbers, so who's paying for these resources? What's the payoff for the threat?" said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's Security Response team. "So you've got to say it's probably a nation-state."

The attackers launched one of the analyzed servers March 25 and the other May 18. Each made contact with Flame-infected computers within hours. The March computer gathered 5GB of data a week from more than 5,000 compromised systems, while the other system was used solely to distribute one command module to infected computers, Kaspersky said. Both systems were disguised as common content management systems, in order to fool hosting providers or security investigators.

Data downloaded from compromised systems were encrypted, and the decryption key did not exist on either server. This meant that people responsible for downloading information knew nothing about the data. Operations where people only know what they need to know to do their job are typical in espionage, Haley said.

"You could see that people were given different jobs, like in a classic spy network," he said.

The developers were also very good at covering their tracks. All unnecessary logging events and entries in the database were deleted at regular intervals, and log files were also wiped from the server on a regular basis.

Fortunately, the defenses were not foolproof. Researchers found the entire history of the servers' setup, as well as a set of encrypted records in the database. In addition, the nicknames of the four code authors were uncovered. The names were not released.

The command and control functions were handled through a web application called Newsforyou. The software contained a simple control panel that attackers used to upload packages of code and download stolen data. The password to the control panel was found encrypted in the servers, but researchers have been unable to crack it. 

The server delivered a module instructing Flame to wipe itself from computers in late May, which is what Symantec and other security researchers witnessed on the computers they setup to trap the malware.

The International Telecommunication Union's cybersecurity arm, called IMPACT, and the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) in Germany joined Kaspersky and Symantec in the research.

While the sophistication of Flame and Stuxnet have surprised many researchers, similarly complex data-stealing tools are available in the hacker underground, experts say. Known as RATs, or remote access tools, the applications can capture screenshots and keystrokes, download files, hijack webcams and listen through laptop microphones.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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