[Marxism] U.S., Israel developed Flame computer virus to slow Iranian nuclear efforts
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 20 06:59:08 MDT 2012
U.S., Israel developed Flame computer virus to slow Iranian
nuclear efforts, officials say
By Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Julie Tate, Published: June 19
The United States and Israel jointly developed a sophisticated
computer virus nicknamed Flame that collected intelligence in
preparation for cyber-sabotage aimed at slowing Iran’s ability to
develop a nuclear weapon, according to Western officials with
knowledge of the effort.
The massive piece of malware secretly mapped and monitored Iran’s
computer networks, sending back a steady stream of intelligence to
prepare for a cyberwarfare campaign, according to the officials.
The effort, involving the National Security Agency, the CIA and
Israel’s military, has included the use of destructive software
such as the Stuxnet virus to cause malfunctions in Iran’s
The emerging details about Flame provide new clues to what is
thought to be the first sustained campaign of cyber-sabotage
against an adversary of the United States.
“This is about preparing the battlefield for another type of
covert action,” said one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence
official, who added that Flame and Stuxnet were elements of a
broader assault that continues today. “Cyber-collection against
the Iranian program is way further down the road than this.”
Flame came to light last month after Iran detected a series of
cyberattacks on its oil industry. The disruption was directed by
Israel in a unilateral operation that apparently caught its
American partners off guard, according to several U.S. and Western
officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
There has been speculation that Washington had a role in
developing Flame, but the collaboration on the virus between the
United States and Israel has not been previously confirmed.
Commercial security researchers reported last week that Flame
contained some of the same code as Stuxnet. Experts described the
overlap as DNA-like evidence that the two sets of malware were
parallel projects run by the same entity.
Spokesmen for the CIA, the NSA and the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence, as well as the Israeli Embassy in
Washington, declined to comment.
The virus is among the most sophisticated and subversive pieces of
malware to be exposed to date. Experts said the program was
designed to replicate across even highly secure networks, then
control everyday computer functions to send secrets back to its
creators. The code could activate computer microphones and
cameras, log keyboard strokes, take screen shots, extract
geolocation data from images, and send and receive commands and
data through Bluetooth wireless technology.
Flame was designed to do all this while masquerading as a routine
Microsoft software update; it evaded detection for several years
by using a sophisticated program to crack an encryption algorithm.
“This is not something that most security researchers have the
skills or resources to do,” said Tom Parker, chief technology
officer for FusionX, a security firm that specializes in
simulating state-sponsored cyberattacks. He said he does not know
who was behind the virus. “You’d expect that of only the most
advanced cryptomathematicians, such as those working at NSA.”
Conventional plus cyber
Flame was developed at least five years ago as part of a
classified effort code-named Olympic Games, according to officials
familiar with U.S. cyber-operations and experts who have
scrutinized its code. The U.S.-Israeli collaboration was intended
to slow Iran’s nuclear program, reduce the pressure for a
conventional military attack and extend the timetable for
diplomacy and sanctions.
The cyberattacks augmented conventional sabotage efforts by both
countries, including inserting flawed centrifuge parts and other
components into Iran’s nuclear supply chain.
The best-known cyberweapon let loose on Iran was Stuxnet, a name
coined by researchers in the antivirus industry who discovered it
two years ago. It infected a specific type of industrial
controller at Iran’s uranium-
enrichment plant in Natanz, causing almost 1,000 centrifuges to
spin out of control. The damage occurred gradually, over months,
and Iranian officials initially thought it was the result of
The scale of the espionage and sabotage effort “is proportionate
to the problem that’s trying to be resolved,” the former
intelligence official said, referring to the Iranian nuclear
program. Although Stuxnet and Flame infections can be countered,
“it doesn’t mean that other tools aren’t in play or performing
effectively,” he said.
To develop these tools, the United States relies on two of its
elite spy agencies. The NSA, known mainly for its electronic
eavesdropping and code-breaking capabilities, has extensive
expertise in developing malicious code that can be aimed at U.S.
adversaries, including Iran. The CIA lacks the NSA’s
sophistication in building malware but is deeply involved in the
The CIA’s Information Operations Center is second only to the
agency’s Counterterrorism Center in size. The IOC, as it is known,
performs an array of espionage functions, including extracting
data from laptops seized in counterterrorism raids. But the
center specializes in computer penetrations that require closer
contact with the target, such as using spies or unwitting
contractors to spread a contagion via a thumb drive.
Both agencies analyze the intelligence obtained through malware
such as Flame and have continued to develop new weapons even as
recent attacks have been exposed.
Flame’s discovery shows the importance of mapping networks and
collecting intelligence on targets as the prelude to an attack,
especially in closed computer networks. Officials say gaining and
keeping access to a network is 99 percent of the challenge.
“It is far more difficult to penetrate a network, learn about it,
reside on it forever and extract information from it without being
detected than it is to go in and stomp around inside the network
causing damage,” said Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and
CIA director who left office in 2009. He declined to discuss any
operations he was involved with during his time in government.
Years in the making
The effort to delay Iran’s nuclear program using cyber-techniques
began in the mid-2000s, during President George W. Bush’s second
term. At that point it consisted mainly of gathering intelligence
to identify potential targets and create tools to disrupt them. In
2008, the program went operational and shifted from military to
CIA control, former officials said.
Despite their collaboration on developing the malicious code, the
United States and Israel have not always coordinated their
attacks. Israel’s April assaults on Iran’s Oil Ministry and
oil-export facilities caused only minor disruptions. The episode
led Iran to investigate and ultimately discover Flame.
“The virus penetrated some fields — one of them was the oil
sector,” Gholam Reza Jalali, an Iranian military cyber official,
told Iranian state radio in May. “Fortunately, we detected and
controlled this single incident.”
Some U.S. intelligence officials were dismayed that Israel’s
unilateral incursion led to the discovery of the virus, prompting
The disruptions led Iran to ask a Russian security firm and a
Hungarian cyber-lab for help, according to U.S. and international
officials familiar with the incident.
Last week, researchers with Kaspersky Lab, the Russian security
firm, reported their conclusion that Flame — a name they came up
with — was created by the same group or groups that built Stuxnet.
Kaspersky declined to comment on whether it was approached by Iran.
“We are now 100 percent sure that the Stuxnet and Flame groups
worked together,” said Roel Schouwenberg, a Boston-based senior
researcher with Kaspersky Lab.
The firm also determined that the Flame malware predates Stuxnet.
“It looks like the Flame platform was used as a kickstarter of
sorts to get the Stuxnet project going,” Schouwenberg said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.
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