'Flame' cyber-weapon went undiscovered for at least four years

VirusTotal logged components years ago

The Flame'super-malware' must have been infecting computers for as long as four years and was less invisible to antivirus software than assumed, an analysis by security company AlienVault has concluded.

On the face of its AlienVault's analysis is just another forensic guess after peering at the important mssecmgr.ocx Win32 PE (portable executable) file, which 'exports' a clutch of progamming functions. As pulled apart by the Hungarian CrySys Lab, this contains debug entries suggesting a 2011 creation date.

However, an older version of the same file references a smaller number of functions and comes with a compilation date in 2008, which suggests a longer development timeline for the software.

Compellingly, running the MD5 file hashes (think of them as file fingerprints) through the VirusTotal website, which runs suspect files against 40 antivirus products and records the signature of each file as it is doing so, elements of Flame turn out to have popped up on the system in the past.

Some of these components turn out to have been seen across the same 2008-2011 data range with CrySis reporting a single file, Wavesup3.drv, was detected as long ago as December 2007. This later turned up in the UAE in April 2008 and Iran in March 2010.

That VirusTotal brushed past these files would not mean that an antivirus system would have detected Flame for what it was; many files might be noticed but only marked as suspect in an isolated, 'generic' way.

What is does suggest is that Flame has been around for years in a number of forms, modified over time, and there are probably more parts to its design yet to be discovered.

What these dates don't reveal is when the malware (or parts of it) were actually deployed and where, let alone by whom with what aim.

"An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence," as cosmologist Carl Sagan once famously said, but with Flame (or Flamer or SKyWIper - the industry can't agree on the name) it has been evidence in the form of a large collection of smaller fragments.

Ever since it was publicised earlier this week, Flame has divided experts, most of whom work for security vendors which have a lot to gain from security crises and, in a strange way, something to lose - none of them appear to have detected it.

The shock of Flame is less its targets (if they include Iran and its allies that is predictable) or even its complexity (although that is notable) but the fact that nobody noticed it until May 2012.

As interesting as Flame is, it's positively baroque when set next to the other famous examples of what are now seen as state-sponsored malware. Stuxnet was austere, Duqu incredibly enigmatic. With its module for everything, Flame is over the top and possibly careless. Experts have hit a dead end on the first two but Flame looks as if it will give them work for months or even years to come.

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