The Complex

Meet the Flame virus's mean little sibling

So it looks like the Flame and Gauss viruses that infected thousands of computers in the Middle East with advanced spyware over the last few years were merely meant to identify valuable targets. Once a person of interest was found by those big bugs, a much smaller, more precise tool, dubbed miniFlame, was sent in to pillage their machines, according to a brand new report by Kaspersky Lab

Basically, miniFlame operates as a backdoor allowing its operators to grab any file from an infected machine, according to an Oct. 15 announcement by the lab. MiniFlame can also take screenshots of an infected computer while it's running a web browser, Microsoft Office programs, Adobe Reader, instant messenger service, or an FTP client. MiniFlame's operators can also send out a separate "module" to infect a victim's USB drives and use them to store data that's collected from infected machines when they aren't connected to the an Internet.

"Most likely it is a targeted cyber weapon used in what can be defined as the second wave of a cyber attack," explained Alexander Gostev, Kaspersky Lab's chief security officer in an Oct. 15 press release "First, Flame or Gauss are used to infect as many victims as possible to collect large quantities of information. After data is collected and reviewed, a potentially interesting victim is defined and identified, and miniFlame is installed in order to conduct more in-depth surveillance and cyber-espionage. The discovery of miniFlame also gives us additional evidence of the cooperation between the creators of the most notable malicious programs used for cyber warfare operations: Stuxnet, Duqu, Flame and Gauss."

Stuxnet is the famous cyber weapon that destroyed Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges several years ago by gaining access to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software that controlled the centrifuges. Duqu is a piece of malware believed to be aimed at gathering intelligence about a target's SCADA systems.

While Flame (shown above) and Gauss infected thousands of machines throughout the Middle East, miniFlame has only been found in a few dozen, reflecting the precision nature of the weapon. Interestingly, miniFlame has hit victims in France and the USA not just the Middle East, though the main victims appear to be in Iran and Lebananon, says one of the Lab's reports on the Malware.

“It's important to understand that the other - bigger - operations were basically about data and information gathering," wrote Roel Schouwenberg, senior researched at Kaspersky Lab, in an Oct. 15 email to Killer Apps.  "Overall these operations infected many thousands of computers, while we estimate that miniFlame was deployed merely dozens of times. miniFlame gives the attacker more direct access to and control over a specific machine. It's only intended to be used for extremely high-value targets.”

Here are the basic facts about miniFlame, according to the lab

  • miniFlame, also known as SPE, is based on the same architectural platform as Flame. It can function as its own independent cyber espionage program or as a component inside both Flame and Gauss.
  • The cyber espionage tool operates as a backdoor designed for data theft and direct access to infected systems.
  • Development of miniFlame might have started as early as 2007 and continued until the end of 2011. Many variations are presumed to be created. To date, Kaspersky Lab has identified six of these variants, covering two major generations: 4.x and 5.x.
  • Unlike Flame or Gauss, which had high number of infections, the amount of infections for miniFlame is much smaller. According to Kaspersky Lab's data, the number of infections is between 10-20 machines. The total number of infections worldwide is estimated at 50-60.
  • The number of infections combined with miniFlame's info-stealing features and flexible design indicate it was used for extremely targeted cyber-espionage operations, and was most likely deployed inside machines that were already infected by Flame or Gauss.

 

Flame was discovered earlier this year on Middle Eastern computers and it was aimed at grabbing screenshots of victim's machines, recording keystrokes, and even capturing audio files and video chats. Gauss, also discovered this year appeared to have been aimed at Middle Eastern financial sector where it collected information such as passwords off of victim's web browsers. Many believe that Flame and Gauss were developed by the United States or Israel and were designed to gather intelligence on Iranian interests in the Middle East.

Speaking at a cyber security conference in Washington last month, Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab said that if the famous Stuxnet virus is analogous to a car, Flame and Gauss are space shuttles in terms of sophistication.

"With Flame, Gauss and miniFlame, we have probably only scratched surface of the massive cyber-spy operations ongoing in the Middle East," reads Kaspersky's report on the new virus. "Their true, full purpose remains obscure and the identity of the victims and attackers remain unknown."

 

Kaspersky Lab

National Security

The Air Force's aggressive cyber defenses

While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last night that the United States military is developing the capabilities to strike back against destructive attacks, U.S. Air Force officials shed some light on the aggressive tactics the service is taking to protect its networks.

As this blog has mentioned before, the air service has realized that it cannot built a cyber Maginot line in an attempt to keep cyber attackers out of its networks. Instead, the Air Force is working to develop networks that can operate while under attack and is starting to hunt its potential cyber attackers.

"Our cyber airmen lead hunter teams on the network in search of our adversaries," said the Air Force's Chief Information Officer, Lt. Gen. Michael Basla during a speech in Virginia yesterday. "They employ active network defense measures while engaged with unknown and potentially dangerous actors."

So, what does active network defense mean?

"Our defensive strategy will also expand into counter cyberspace operations, we will develop more focused and robust cyber ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and situational awareness capabilities to provide accurate, relevant and timely intelligence in the cyberspace domain," said Gen. William Shelton during the same conference yesterday. As commander of Air Force Space Command, Shelton (shown above) is one of the service's top cyber warriors.

While the military is incredibly tight-lipped about the specifics of its cyber operations, these comments seem to suggest that the Air Force, and the rest of the DoD, is using its relatively newfound ability to quickly trace who is attacking it to probe its enemies networks, discovering when, how, and why they are attacking and looking for weaknesses in their tactics and their networks.

The DoD is also likely using cyber honeypots, a basic security technique that deliberately gives cyber attackers what appear to be alluring targets.  Once an attack is underway, the military could either feed the attacker bad information or simply observe and learn all about how the enemy operates, building intelligence not only for defense but also for offensive operations against that attacker.

"Once we've established a strong defense, we'll focus more energy on offense," added Shelton.

U.S. Air Force