While Flame and Gauss act as stealthy espionage malware, having already infected several thousand systems in the Middle East to gather information from their targets, researchers have discovered a new piece of malware that targets those already infected in a more precise way.
Analysts at Russia-based security firm Kaspersky Lab has detected MiniFlame, or SPE, an information-stealing backdoor that works independently, or as a module of Flame and Gauss, on about 50 to 60 machines.
The small number of victims is telling of the malware's design and purpose: to zero in on high-profile targets pinpointed in the Flame and Gauss campaigns.
MiniFlame's capabilities include capturing screenshots while victims run specific programs or applications – like Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader or instant messenger – or use USB drives to store data collected from infected machines, but which aren't connected to the internet.
The malware is able to communicate with its own unique command-and-control servers or with Flame's servers, according to Kaspersky. It is also likely that the malware is deployed during initial Flame and Gauss infection.
Roel Schouwenberg, senior researcher at Kaspersky Lab, told SCMagazine.com on Monday that MiniFlame gives attackers continued access to its targets.
“MiniFlame really serves as a backdoor,” Schouwenberg said. “Meanwhile, Flame and Gauss were about data and information gathering. MiniFlame gives more direct access to a target machine.”
With the discovery of MiniFlame in July, researchers have determined that the authors of Flame and Gauss, and those of other nation-state-sponsorsed weapons like Stuxnet and Duqu, are cooperating in their spy efforts.
Kaspersky published an anaylsis of Flame's command-and-control servers last month, where it discovered an in-the-wild Flame variant, now thought to be one of several MiniFlame strains infecting machines.
So far, Kaspersky researchers have discovered six strains of MiniFlame malware. They believe development began as far back as 2007. Variations of the malware have been detected in Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Palestine.
In a Monday blog post, Symantec also confirmed that it discovered an additional module of Flame that could operate independently of the malware.
“The samples appear to have remained unobserved for so long due to their highly targeted nature; however one more of those protocols has been identified and found to be in use,” said the blog post. “That protocol is for a module that can operate independently of [Flame].”
Flame and Gauss are believed to be creations of the United States.
In the blog post, Kaspersky said that the discovery of MiniFlame uncovers more details about the highly orchestrated spy campaigns, but that a lot more remains to be seen.
“With Flame, Gauss and MiniFlame, we have probably only scratched the surface of the massive cyber-spy operations in the Middle East,” the post said. “Their true, full purpose remains obscure, and the identity of the victims and attackers remain unknown.”