Attacks on Iranian oil industry led to Flame malware find

Deletion of data from Iranian oil ministry, facilities last month led to discovery of advanced attack code, says expert

The sophisticated cyber espionage malware known as "Flame" was discovered after computers within Iran's energy industry were wiped clean of data, a security expert said today.

"This was discovered during the investigation of a wiping of Iran's gas companies' computers," Liam O Murchu, manager of operations at Symantec's security response center, said in an interview Tuesday.

O Murchu was referring to reports out of Iran a month ago, when the country's oil ministry confirmed that servers at several companies had been attacked. Later, other officials there acknowledged that the attacks had been aimed at other government ministries and industries.

At the time, Iran admitted that the attacks had crippled some machines by wiping their hard drives, but claimed that it had been able to restore the servers using backups.

Reports from Iran's state-backed media said that officials had identified the hackers responsible for the attacks.

It's unclear whether Flame -- the name assigned to a massive and advanced piece of malware seemingly designed for cyber espionage, reconnaissance and data theft -- was the cause of the data wiping in Iran, said O Murchu.

But there are hints in the code.

"There's no hard link that Flame did the [data deletion] damage, but there is a tenuous link," said O Murchu. "There are strings in the code that could be used to damage machines. Some of the strings do suicide, and it appears there is the possibility that it can not only erase itself, but also the entire machine."

"Suicide" in this context describes the practice of self-deletion, a tactic Flame seems to use once its controllers have gotten all they can from the infected Windows PC or the network it's attached to.

On Monday, Iran's National Computer Emergency Response Team, or CERT -- known by the name "Maher" -- had said much the same as O Murchu. In a statement released on its website, Maher said, "The research on these samples implies that the recent incidents of mass data loss in Iran could be the outcome of some installed modules of this threat."

Today, Maher released a Flame seek-and-destroy tool that it said would delete the malware from PCs and networks. In the Monday statement, the center retroactively announced that it had issued a Flame detector in early May because existing antivirus software was unable to spot the malware.

That timeline generally fits with what Western security companies have said about their part in Flame's analysis.

According to Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, its researchers were asked to investigate by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) after that agency received reports that an unknown piece of malware was deleting sensitive information on Windows PCs throughout the Middle East.

Iran first noted the attacks against its energy industry in late April, making it feasible that the country was able to craft a Flame detection tool within the next few weeks, as it claimed.

O Murchu said that Symantec's telemetry confirmed what other antivirus vendors have said: Iran harbors the largest number of Flame-infected systems.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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