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Iran's discovery of Flame malware turning into political hot potato

Ellen Messmer | May 31, 2012
The uproar is reaching into the United Nations, which is investigating the malware.

With Iran's computer-emergency response center now decrying Windows-based cyber-espionage software known as Flame (or alternately Flamer or Skywiper) it says it discovered infecting its oil-ministry computers, the uproar is reaching into the United Nations, which is investigating the malware.

The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will issue a warning to countries about the Flame computer virus that was discovered in Iran, with Marco Obiso, cyber security coordinator for the ITU saying Flame was a dangerous tool that could be used to potentially attack critical infrastructure.

Obiso is quoted by Reuters as saying Flame was likely created by a "nation-state," and Obiso voiced the opinion that Flame is "much worse than Stuxnet," the malware discovered two years ago that appeared to target programmable logic controllers in Iranian nuclear facilities. No one claimed official responsibility for that, but suspicions centered on Iran's adversaries the U.S. and Israel.

In comparison to Stuxnet, however, Flame malware appears to be for broader cyber-espionage purposes on infected Windows machines. Kaspersky Lab, which was commissioned by the ITU to analyze Flame, is also now saying Flame is likely a cyber-espionage weapon developed by a nation-state. Even as technical research proceeds to better understand the highly complex and encryption-hidden Flame, some are noting that the political ramifications of what's unfolding are significant.

Flame is being spotted in other Middle East countries and Europe; researchers in Budapest say it's been uncovered in Hungary.

"This is not a flash in the pan," says Chris Bronk, professor and fellow in information technology at Rice University. With Iran going directly to the U.N. division of the ITU to report its discovery of Flame, and the ITU calling on Kaspersky to conduct a technical analysis, the issue of cyber-espionage and critical infrastructure protection has now landed squarely on the political stage. Diplomatic circles to date have not found this topic an easy one to understand or deal with, Bronk points out.

The ITU, based in Geneva, has had a long history in traditional telecommunications related to global standards, but its role is not now as important as it was decades ago. These days, the ITU is interested in expanding its global political role at the U.N. by taking on cyber-security issues, Bronk says.

Most of the major anti-malware companies global in operation, but even the fact that the ITU selected Kaspersky, a Russian-based company, to do the analysis rather than an American-based one such as Symantec or McAfee will be a fact remembered by many as the significance of Flame becomes better understood, Bronk adds.

In response, Kaspersky said it was natural for the ITU to commission it to analyze Flame because Kaspersky has worked on several cyber-security projects with the ITU. Roel Schouwenberg, senior researcher at Kaspersky, said it will take some time to fully understand Flame, but the research is being done independently of Iran or any other country. So far, Kaspersky has found 189 instances of infections have been identified in Iran, 98 in Israel and Palestine, 30 in Syria, plus a few more elsewhere in the Middle East.


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