United Nations to issue warning about ‘most powerful computer virus ever’
The United Nations is set to issue an urgent warning to guard against the most powerful computer virus ever unleashed amid fears it could be used to bring countries to a standstill.
In what was being seen last night as the dawn of a new era in cyber warfare, UN computer security chief Marco Obiso said: ‘This is the most serious warning we have ever put out.’
He was speaking after it was revealed that a massive superbug had been used to hack into computers in Iran.
Israel did little to dispute claims yesterday that it was behind the clandestine online assault.
The sophisticated spyware – said to be about 100 times the size of most malicious software – also hacked other machines in the Middle East, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt, but Iran appeared to be the primary target, according to a Russian Internet security firm.
Mr. Obiso, cyber security coordinator for the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, said the warning will underline the danger the virus represents to the critical infrastructure of member nations.
Dubbed ‘Flame’, the Trojan bug worms its way into computer systems and reportedly turns infected machines into listening devices.
It can activate a computer’s audio system to eavesdrop on Skype calls or office chatter, take screenshots or log keystrokes and even suck information from Bluetooth-enabled phones left nearby.
‘The complexity and functionality of the newly discovered malicious program exceed those of all other cyber menaces known to date.
‘It pretty much redefines the notion of cyber war and cyber espionage,’ said Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab ZAO.
The company’s conclusion that the superbug was crafted at the behest of a national government fuelled claims that Flame was part of an Israeli-backed campaign of electronic sabotage aimed at archrival Iran.
And the Israelis didn’t try and deflect blame.
‘Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various threats, including these, to hobble it,’ said Israel’s Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon when he was asked about the virus.
‘Israel is blessed with high technology and we boast tools that open all sorts of opportunities for us,’ he added.
Alan Woodward, a professor of computing at the University of Surrey, compared the virus to a smartphone. Depending on what espionage you want to carry out, ‘you just add apps.’
He said Flame’s ability to attack Bluetooth-enabled devices left near a computer attack was ‘very unusual.’
Bluetooth is a short-range wireless communications protocol generally used for wireless headsets, in-car audio systems or file swapping between mobile phones.
THE MOST COMPLEX ‘CYBER WEAPON’ OF ALL TIME – WHAT FLAME DOES
The virus contains about 20 times as much code as Stuxnet, which attacked an Iranian uranium enrichment facility, causing centrifuges to fail.
It has about 100 times as much code as a typical virus designed to steal financial information, Kaspersky Labs said.
Flame can gather data files, remotely change settings on computers, turn on PC microphones to record conversations, take screen shots and log instant messaging chats.
He said there was evidence to suggest the code was commissioned by the same nation or nations that were behind Stuxnet and Duqu, which were built on a common platform.
Professor Woodward said that Flame turns an infected computer into a kind of ‘industrial vacuum cleaner,’ copying data from vulnerable cell phones or other devices left near it.
‘I don’t believe I’ve seen it before,’ he added.
Udi Mokady, the head of Cyber-Ark, an Israeli developer of information security, claimed only four countries – the US, Israel, Russia and China – had the technological know-how to develop so sophisticated an electronic offensive.
‘It’s a live programme that communicates back to its master. It asks, where should I go? What should I do now? It’s really almost like a science fiction movie,’ he said.
The Russians discovered the virus after being asked by the United Nations to find a piece of mystery malware that was wiping out sensitive information across the Middle East.
It is believed to have been coded by the same programmers who hacked into Iran’s nuclear programme six years ago.
Last night, Iran’s National Computer Emergency Response Team posted a security alert saying it believed Flame was responsible for ‘recent incidents of mass data loss.’ It also claimed an antidote had been found.
The discovery of the Flame virus came just days after talks between Iran and six world powers in Baghdad failed to persuade Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment. A new round of talks is expected to take place in Moscow next month.