Researchers Dissect Malware for Clues ; Security Experts Believe Computer Virus Is Linked to Campaign against Iran

By Perlroth, Nicole | International Herald Tribune, June 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Researchers Dissect Malware for Clues ; Security Experts Believe Computer Virus Is Linked to Campaign against Iran


Perlroth, Nicole, International Herald Tribune


Flame appears to be part of the state-sponsored campaign that spied on and eventually set back Iran's nuclear program in 2010, when a digital attack destroyed about a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

Security experts have only begun examining the thousands of lines of code that make up Flame, an extensive, data-mining computer virus that has been designed to steal information from computers across the Middle East, but already digital clues point to its creators and capabilities.

Researchers at Kaspersky Lab, which first reported the virus Monday, believe Flame was written by a different group of programmers from those who had created other malware directed at computers in the Middle East, particularly those in Iran.

But Flame appears to be part of the state-sponsored campaign that spied on and eventually set back Iran's nuclear program in 2010, when a digital attack destroyed about a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

"We believe Flame was written by a different team of programmers but commissioned by the same larger entity," Roel Schouwenberg, a security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, said in an interview Wednesday. But he would not say which governments he was speaking of.

Flame, these researchers say, shares several notable features with two other major programs that focused on Iran in recent years. The first virus, Duqu, was a reconnaissance tool that researchers say was used to copy blueprints of Iran's nuclear program. The second, Stuxnet, was designed to attack industrial control systems and specifically calibrated to make Iranian centrifuges spin out of control.

Because Stuxnet and Duqu were written on the same platform and share many of the same fingerprints in their source code, researchers believe both were developed by the same group of programmers. Those developers have never been identified, but researchers have cited intriguing bits of digital evidence that point to a joint U.S.-Israeli effort to undermine Iran's efforts to build a nuclear bomb.

For example, researchers at Kaspersky Lab tracked the working hours of Duqu's operators and found they coincided with Jerusalem local time. They also noted that Duqu's programmers were not active between sundown on Fridays and sundown on Saturdays, a time that coincides with the Sabbath when observant Jews typically refrain from secular work.

Intelligence and military experts have said that Stuxnet was first tested at Dimona, an Israeli complex widely believed to be the headquarters of Israel's atomic weapons program.

According to researchers at Kaspersky Lab, which is based in Moscow, Flame may have preceded or been designed at the same time as Duqu and Stuxnet.

Security researchers at Webroot, an antivirus maker, first encountered a sample of Flame malware in December 2007. Researchers believe Duqu may have been created in August 2007. …

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