NEWS ANALYSIS: Current theories circulating in the IT security community contend that the Gauss cyber-spy Trojan was created by the U.S. government in the same lab that created the Flame malware. But nobody is sure why.
A number of things are known about the Gauss
Trojan first discovered by the folks at Kaspersky
Lab in the fall of 2011. We know that it's closely
related to Flame which was allegedly created by U.S. intelligence interests
to attack Iran. We know that Gauss isn't attacking Iran, but instead seems to
be snooping on computers and networks elsewhere in the Middle East.
We also know that Gauss can spread through USB memory
sticks. We think we know that Gauss is targeting something or someone, but we
don't know who or what. We know that Gauss installs a TrueType font, Palida
Narrow on machines it has infected.
We have also learned that if it doesn't find what it's
looking for, it deletes itself. We know that Gauss seems to target banking
information from Lebanese financial institutions. We know that most of the
infections are in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Kaspersky Lab says in its report that the few infections
found elsewhere, like the 43 found in the United States are probably on machines
physically located in the Middle East and connected through a VPN. And finally
we know that the servers controlling Gauss were shut down in July. So Gauss is
probably not a significant threat at this time.
So what was Gauss up to? Despite the interest in banking
information, Gauss is probably not being used to steal money. First of all,
there haven't been indignant reports of money being stolen from interests in
the Middle East. Second, Gauss is based on the Flame espionage software,
meaning that it's probably engaged in espionage also.
So if it's true that Gauss is a state-sponsored malware
package looking for banking information along with user data, passwords,
personal data, social networking and the like in Lebanon and elsewhere, why was
it doing it?
If I had to guess and it is only a guess, I'd say it's
looking for terrorist organizations. A primary method of tracking terrorist
groups has been the same for a long time and that is to follow the money. This
would explain a lot. The U.S. has tracked down a number of terrorists, taken
them into custody and awarded them free one-way trips to tropical Cuba. It's
also used their financial and communications to present them with gifts, such
as Hellfire Missiles sent from above. So tracking money and communications will
net you some terrorists, if only you know whom to track.
It would appear that this is what Gauss was up to. It
would explain the extraction of banking information (but not money), the recording
of browser activity and the collecting of social media information. Terrorists
don't generally communicate using Outlook to send email, after all. Instead, the
common practice is to use the Web and to go to compromised sites or to sites
with prearranged access and leave messages there. The collection of browsing
history by Gauss would net that information as well.
So why did the control servers shut down in July? There
are a couple of possibilities. Perhaps Gauss found the targets it was searching
for and shut down to protect its anonymity. Perhaps the operators of Gauss
realized they had been discovered and wanted to eliminate any chance of being tracked
down. Perhaps it was a scheduled shutdown to minimize the risk of detection. In
reality, nobody knows for sure.
And why does Gauss use the Palida Narrow font? Again, if
I had to guess, I suspect that this is the way Gauss checks to see if it's
already infected the machine. If it has, it doesn't do it again and instead
erases itself to avoid detection. Gauss also erases itself from USB drives if
it checks a machine and finds that it's not on the list of things to infect.
For a piece of malware, Gauss seems to go to a lot of effort to erase itself
and doesn't go to much trouble spreading itself.
In fact, the Kaspersky Lab report says that right now,
it's not clear how Gauss spreads, but notes that it does not spread
indiscriminatelyâanother non-malware trait. Now that the Gauss network seems to
be rolling up, it's likely we'll never know for sure who sent it out or why it
was sent. Critical portions of the code are encrypted with keys we don't have
or don't know. We don't really know what was sent to the control servers before
they were shut down.
The good news is that unless you're in the Middle East,
the chances of any individual's personal machine being infected with this Trojan
are vanishingly small. Even better, detection is easy as is removal. Your
antivirus software almost certainly knows about it and will remove Gauss
automatically. There's also a Kaspersky site
you can visit that will tell you.
So this brings us to the final question. Now that Gauss
has mysteriously disappeared, what's next? We don't have an answer to that, but
since it was an espionage tool, chances are good that we won't know what's next
until it's already over.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.