The highly sophisticated Flame malware was jointly developed by the U.S. and Israeli governments in preparation for a cybersabotage campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment efforts, according to a media report.
Citing unnamed Western officials with knowledge of the operation, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Flame’s goal was to collect intelligence about Iran’s computer networks that would facilitate future cyberattacks.
On June 1, The New York Times reported that Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malware that is believed to have caused the destruction of up to 1,000 gas centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was created by the U.S. and Israel governments as part of a joint operation code-named Olympic Games.
The New York Times cited unnamed official sources who said that prior to deploying Stuxnet, cyberespionage software programs known as beacons were secretly inserted into computers made by German hardware manufacturer Siemens and an Iranian company.
The purpose of these beacons was to collect information about how computer from the Natanz facility interoperated with the uranium enrichment centrifuges, and send this data back for analysis.
On June 11, security researchers from Kaspersky Lab, one of the security companies that discovered and analyzed the Flame malware, announced that they found a link between Flame and Stuxnet in the form of shared computer code.
Based on this evidence of collaboration, they theorized that the two threats were created by two development teams funded by the same group of attackers. Flame was probably used for espionage and Stuxnet for sabotage, Roel Schouwenberg, a senior researcher with Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team, said at the time.
Flame was discovered back in May, following an investigation into a series of mysterious data loss incidents at Iran’s Oil Ministry. Those attacks were carried out in April by the Israeli part of the operation without knowledge from the U.S. side, the Washington Post’s sources said.
Security researchers from Kaspersky Lab believe that Flame was created in the first half of 2008. Stuxnet was discovered in June 2010, but the first variant of the malware is believed to date from June 2009.
In September 2011, a separate piece of cyberespionage malware called Duqu was discovered. Duqu’s architecture and code are very similar to Stuxnet, leading security researchers to believe that the two threats were created on the same development platform.