A worm described as "the most sophisticated cyber weapon yet unleashed" has been detected attacking nations in the Middle East.
Named ‘Flame', researchers from Kaspersky Lab said that it shares many characteristics with Duqu and Stuxnet, yet said it was "one of the most complex threats ever discovered".
With the official name 'Worm.Win32.Flame', Kaspersky Lab said it is a sophisticated attack toolkit that contains a backdoor and Trojan and has worm-like features, allowing it to replicate in a local network and on removable media if it is commanded to do so.
Once a system is infected, Flame begins by sniffing the network traffic, taking screenshots, recording audio conversations, intercepting the keyboard and other actions, which is passed on to the operators through the link to Flame's command and control (C&C) servers.
The research was uncertain about how it infects or who was responsible, but said that the creation dates on the files were falsely marked as being in the early 1990s; it did see use of Flame in 2010 but refuted any direct link to Stuxnet, which was discovered at the same time.
It said: “One of the best pieces of advice in any kind of operation is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Knowing that sooner or later Stuxnet and Duqu would be discovered, it would make sense to produce other similar projects – but based on a completely different philosophy. This way, if one of the research projects is discovered, the other one can continue unhindered. Hence, we believe Flame to be a parallel project, created as a fallback in case some other project is discovered.”
In terms of what it is targeting, Kaspersky Lab said that there is no visible pattern to the kind of organisations targeted by Flame, but the top seven affected countries were Iran, Israel, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Kaspersky Lab also said that due to the Flame's huge package of modules comprising almost 20MB in size, it was not detected for so long as modern malware is often small and focused. The research also claimed that Flame is 20 times the size of Stuxnet.
In terms of its sophistication, it combines different libraries, including some for compression (zlib, libbz2, ppmd), for database manipulation (sqlite3) and a LUA virtual machine, which many of its parts are written in.
It said: “Usage of LUA in malware is uncommon. The practice of concealment through large amounts of code is one of the specific new features in Flame. The recording of audio data from the internal microphone is also rather new. Of course, other malware exists which can record audio, but key here is Flame's completeness – the ability to steal data in so many different ways.”
Flame sends recorded data to the C&C through a covert SSL channel; it has the ability to regularly take screenshots and when Bluetooth is available and turned on, it collects information about discoverable devices near the infected machine. Depending on the configuration, it can also turn the infected machine into a beacon, and make it discoverable via Bluetooth and provide general information about the malware status encoded in the device information.
Alexander Gostev, chief security expert at Kaspersky Lab, said: “The preliminary findings of the research confirm the highly targeted nature of this malicious program. 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.”