By THOMAS ERDBRINK, Published: May 29, 2012 Original Article Here
TEHRAN — The computers of high-ranking Iranian officials appear to have been penetrated by a data-mining virus called Flame, in what may be the most destructive cyberattack on Iran since the notorious Stuxnet virus, an Iranian cyberdefense organization confirmed on Tuesday.
In a message posted on its Web site, Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center warned that the virus was dangerous. An expert at the organization said in a telephone interview that it was potentially more harmful than the 2010 Stuxnet virus, which destroyed several centrifuges used for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In contrast to Stuxnet, the newly identified virus is designed not to do damage but to collect information secretly from a wide variety of sources.
Flame, which experts say could be as much as five years old, was discovered by Iranian computer experts. In a statement about Flame on its Web site, Kaspersky Lab, a Russian producer of antivirus software, said that “the complexity and functionality of the newly discovered malicious program exceed those of all other cyber menaces known to date.”
The virus bears special encryption hallmarks that an Iranian cyberdefense official said have strong similarities to previous Israeli malware. “Its encryption has a special pattern which you only see coming from Israel,” said Kamran Napelian, an official with Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team. “Unfortunately, they are very powerful in the field of I.T.”
While Israel never comments officially on such matters, its involvement was hinted at by top officials there. “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat — it’s reasonable that he will take various steps, including these, to harm it,” said the vice prime minister and strategic affairs minister, Moshe Yaalon, in a widely quoted interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday.
In a speech Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention Flame specifically, but he did include computer viruses as one of five critical types of threats Israel faces, saying: “We are investing a great deal of money in that, human capital and financial capital. I expect these investments to yield a great deal in the coming years.”
Mr. Napelian said that Flame seemed designed to mine data from personal computers and that it was distributed through USB sticks rather than the Internet, meaning that a USB has to be inserted manually into at least one computer in a network.
“This virus copies what you enter on your keyboard; it monitors what you see on your computer screen,” Mr. Napelian said. That includes collecting passwords, recording sounds if the computer is connected to a microphone, scanning disks for specific files and monitoring Skype.
“Those controlling the virus can direct it from a distance,” Mr. Napelian said. “Flame is no ordinary product. This was designed to monitor selected computers.”
Mr. Napelian said he was not authorized to disclose how much damage Flame had caused, but guessed the virus had been active for the past six months and was responsible for a “massive” data loss. Iran says it has developed antivirus software to combat Flame, something that international antivirus companies have yet to do, since they have just become aware of its existence.
“One of the most alarming facts is that the Flame cyberattack 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,” Alexander Gostev, chief security expert at Kaspersky Lab, said on the company’s Web site.
Those close to Iran’s leaders said that the virus was tantamount to an attack.
“I am no virus expert, and my computer seems to be working,” said Sadollah Zarei, a columnist for the state newspaper, Kayhan, “but I know this is covert warfare, aimed at weakening us.”
Jodi Rudoren contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.