TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Computer technicians battling to contain a complexvirus last month resorted to the ultimate firewall measures –cutting off Internet links to Iran's Oil Ministry, rigs and the hub for nearly all the country'scrude exports. At the time, Iranian officials described it as a data-siphoningblitz on key oil networks. On Wednesday, they gave it a name: A strike by the powerful"Flame" malware that experts this week have called anew and highly sophisticated program capable of hauling awaycomputer files and even listening in on computer users. Its originsremain a mystery, but international suspicion quickly fell on Israel opening another front in its suspected covert wars with archenemyTehran. ( MORE: Russian Firm: Iran Victim of Cyberattack ) "This virus penetrated some fields. |
One of them was the oilsector," said Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads an Iranianmilitary unit in charge of fighting sabotage. "Fortunately,we detected and controlled this single incident." The Flame virus – a mix of cyberspy and hard-drive burglar– has been detected across the Middle East recently. ButIran's linkage to the oil network attack in April could markits first major infiltration and suggests a significant escalationin attempts to disrupt Iran's key commercial and nuclearsites. Iran is one of the world's leading oil producers.
Two years ago, a virus called Stuxnet tailored to disruptIran's nuclear centrifuges caused some setbacks within itsuranium enrichment labs and infected an estimated 16,000 computers,Iranian officials say. At least two other smaller viruses have beendetected in nuclear and industrial centers. The Flame program, however, is widely considered as a technologicalleap in break-in programming. Some experts also see the same highlevel of engineering shared by Stuxnet, which many suspect was thework of Israeli intelligence.
"It is very complex and very sophisticated," said MarcoObiso, cybersecurity coordinator at the U.N.'s InternationalTelecommunication Union in Geneva. "It's one of themost serious yet." Israel, a world leader in computer security, has never confirmed ordenied any involvement in Stuxnet or other viruses that have hitIranian networks nationwide. Israel fears that Iran's nuclear program is geared towarddeveloping a weapon that might be turned against it and Israelitself is believed to have nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders have repeatedly said that "all options are onthe table," a phrase that is widely interpreted as meaningthe possibility of a military strike and other measures that couldinclude cyberwarfare.
Already, Iran and Israel have traded accusations of carrying outclandestine hits and attack conspiracies in locales stretching fromthe Baku to Bangkok. Iran claims Israeli agents are behind the slayings of at least fivenuclear scientists and researchers since 2010. Earlier this month,Iran hanged a man convicted of carrying out one of the killingsafter allegedly being trained by Israel's Mossad spy agency.Israel denied any role. Authorities in several countries, meanwhile, are investigatingpossible Iranian links to bombings and plots against Israelitargets and others, including a wide-ranging probe inAzerbaijan's capital Baku.
On the cyber front, Iran says it has sharply boosted its defensesby creating special computer corps to protect crucial onlineinfrastructure. Iran also claims it seeks to build its own Internetbuffered from the global web, but experts have raised seriousquestions about its feasibility. Iran's Deputy Minister of Communications and InformationTechnology Ali Hakim Javadi was quoted by the official IRNA newsagency Wednesday as saying that Iranian experts have produced ananti-virus program capable of identifying and removing Flame. "The anti-virus software was delivered to selectedorganizations in early May," he said. That would have been at least two weeks after officials say itpenetrated Iran's Oil Ministry and related sites.
Withinhours, technicians decided to close off the Internet connections tothe ministry, oil rigs and the Khark Island oil terminal, the jumpoff point for about 80 percent of Iran's daily 2.2 millionbarrels of crude exports. Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads an Iranian military unit in charge offighting sabotage, told state radio that the oil industry was theonly governmental body seriously affected and that all data lostwere later retrieved. "This virus penetrated some fields. One of them was the oilsector.
Fortunately, we detected and controlled this singleincident," Jalali said. Obiso, whose agency is helping to direct the international responseto Flame, said the virus first came to the group's attentionin mid-April and researchers have been working on unraveling itscode since. "We still think Flame has much more to show," he said. The Russian Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab ZAO said the Flamevirus has struck Iran the hardest, but has been detected in thePalestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia andEgypt. It also has been found in Israel – leading some Israelisecurity officials to suggest the virus could be traced to the U.S.or other Western nations.
Experts describe it as a multitasking mole. It can wipe data offhard drives, but also be a tireless eavesdropper by activatingaudio systems to listen in on Skype calls or office chatter. Italso can also take screenshots, log keystrokes and – in oneof its more novel functions- steal data from Bluetooth-enabledmobile phones. Israeli's vice premier on Tuesday did little to deflectsuspicion about the country's possible involvement.
"Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat islikely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it,"Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio when asked about Flame. "Israelis blessed with high technology, and we boast tools that open allsorts of opportunities for us." Iran says is has previously discovered one more espionage virus,Duqu, but that the malware did no harm Iran's nuclear orindustrial sites. Jalali said Flame is the third. Dozens of unexplained explosions also have hit the country'sgas pipelines in the past two years. Officials have not linked themto cyberattacks, but authorities have not closed the books on theinvestigations.
( MORE: U.S. Frustration on Iran and Syria Puts New Cards in Russia'sHands ).
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