MiniFlame Backdoor Steals Middle East Data

Security firms find a program linked to the Flame and Gauss cyber-espionage tools that steals data from and provides backdoor access to high-profile targets.

The cyber-espionage tools, Flame and Gauss, are not alone in targeting Middle Eastern firms and government agencies. Security firm Kaspersky has found a third program linked to the two spy tools, this time focused on stealing data from and providing access to the computer systems of high-profile targets in the Middle East, the company stated in an analysis of the program published Oct. 15.

The program, called SPE by its developers and "miniFlame" by Kaspersky, appears to have been created around 2010, at the same time as the other two programs, but is specifically focused on stealing data from organizations in Iran and Lebanon. Only six versions of the program have been discovered so far, and Kaspersky believes that only 50 to 60 installations currently exist.

"If Flame and Gauss were massive spy operations, infecting thousands of users, miniFlame/SPE is a high-precision, surgical attack tool," Kaspersky stated in its analysis.

MiniFlame is the latest attack tool discovered in the midst of what appears to be a widespread shadow conflict in the Middle East. On one side, Flame, Duqu and Gauss—reportedly created by Israel and the United States—have stolen information from companies and government agencies in the region, while Stuxnet has damaged the nuclear processing capabilities of Iran. In exchange, attacks—seemingly from Iran—have hit Middle Eastern oil conglomerates, and alleged Iranian hackers have sent floods of data at U.S. financial institutions.

SPE, or miniFlame, appears to fit right into that conflict. At first thought to be another module of Flame, MiniFlame is an independent program that can be used with Flame, Gauss or on its own, according to the Kaspersky analysis. The relatively rare program seems to be only used to control the computers that are most interesting to the attackers, said Roel Schouwenberg, senior researcher with Kaspersky Lab.

"We currently believe miniFlame is installed via Flame and Gauss—those operations are about data and information gathering," Schouwenberg said. "miniFlame seems intended for direct access to extremely high-value targets. It serves as a real backdoor."

The miniFlame program uses a communications protocol to connect to command-and-control servers, referred to as “OldProtocolE,” which appears to have been created five years ago.

Until now, it was thought that Flame and Gauss had no modules in common. However, miniFlame can work with either program or operate independently, the company said.

"The discovery of miniFlame (and its ability to work) with both these espionage projects, proves that we were right when we concluded that they had come out of the same 'cyber-weapon' factory," the analysis stated.

From code in the command-and-control server software that identifies expected clients, there are likely two other components of the Flame toolkit remaining to be discovered by researchers. The SP program, which uses the same communications protocol as Flame, has likely been retired, according to Kaspersky. Yet another program—only identified by “IP” in the software—has still not been found in the wild, the firm stated.

"IP is probably different (code) and still remains unknown," the company's analysis stated.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...