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Fighting copycats variants of a piece of escaped government malware is no easy task

In the Middle East, information technology experts are grappling with a very persistent piece of malware dubbed Flame.  Flame is slightly older than the much-discussed Stuxnet worm.  Stuxnet is a researcher-named escaped variant of "The Bug", a series of worms used in an elaborate U.S. and Israeli cyber-sabotage program code-named "Olympics Games".  That effort was aimed (successfully) at destroying Iranian nuclear weapons fuel enrichment centrifuges without bloodshed.

I. Flame Forces Patch

Likewise, Flame is suspected to be written by the U.S. to target Iranian nuclear efforts or possibly Al Qaeda.  However, its goals appeared to be aimed at reconnaissance rather than sabotage.  

Regardless of the purpose, it is less subtle than "The Bug" variants, and while confined largely to the Middle East has been a top cleanup priority for Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).

Flame worm
Rooting out the Flame worm is a top priority for Microsoft. [Image Source: Krishnan Vasuvedan]

On its Tech NetMicrosoft Security Response Center blog, Microsoft laid out its plans to slay Flame and harden its Windows Update (WU) process in a pair of blogs.

Microsoft reports that Flame spread itself by using cryptography weaknesses in an older version of Microsoft's certification process.  That allowed the software to pose as trusted signed software from Microsoft and install without warning the user.

Flame infographic
Flame has narrowly targeted the Middle East, particularly Iran. [Image Source: Kapersky Labs]

In its blog, Microsoft warns, "As many reports assert, Flame has been used in highly sophisticated and targeted attacks and, as a result, the vast majority of customers are not at risk.... That said, our investigation has discovered some techniques used by this malware that could also be leveraged by less sophisticated attackers to launch more widespread attacks."

The blog goes on to reveal the company's current fix to the problem, outlining:

• First, today we released a Security Advisory outlining steps our customers can take to block software signed by these unauthorized certificates.

• Second, we released an update that automatically takes this step for our customers.

• Third, the Terminal Server Licensing Service no longer issues certificates that allow code to be signed.

II. Malicious Updates are a Harder Fix

But Flame illustrated deeper underlying security issues for Windows, in that Microsoft feared that copycats could tamper with the Windows Update process to prevent its potential removal.  Some malware authors have been finding ways to literally "turn off" Windows Update, preventing fixes and patches from reach affected machines.  And as Microsoft notes in its blog update, sophisticated attackers could even leverage Windows Update to deliver malware masquerading as signed Microsoft updates.
The dreaded restart prompt
Malware writers could potentially disguise their malfeasant wares as Windows Updates.

The company writes that it plans on "hardening" WU, commenting:

To increase protection for customers, the next action of our mitigation strategy is to further harden Windows Update as a defense-in-depth precaution. We will begin this update following broad adoption of Security Advisory 2718704 in order not to interfere with that update’s worldwide deployment. We will provide more information on the timing of the additional hardening to Windows Update in the near future.

In other words, while sophisticated state-written malware like Flame and Stuxnet may have created headaches, both diplomatically and technologically, they served as a "full disclosure" warning of sorts to Microsoft.  These attacks have given it the knowledge and motivation to patch some gaping holes that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and quietly exploited for some time -- or at least that's the glass half-full way of looking at the situation.

Sources: Microsoft [1], [2]

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By kleinma on 6/6/2012 4:49:20 PM , Rating: 2
I fix a lot of virus laden computers, and I constantly see windows update turned off, disabled, or sometimes totally removed from the system. Granted the complete removal tends to be on XP machines and I haven't seen that on Win7, but I have seen simple fake AV style viruses on machines that have disabled Norton, McAfee, or Microsoft Security Essentials, and disabled windows update and disabled the security center so you won't get popup notifications that things are not on anymore. Or sometime it is as simple as installing as a LSP or a filter driver on the network connection, so you can stop or redirect specific DNS resolutions, like windows update servers.

Whatever they can do to harden this up is good. WU needs a dose of Viagra!

RE: malware
By Alexvrb on 6/6/2012 7:54:03 PM , Rating: 2
The biggest security flaw is the user. They just click the buttons that "make it go" when they are trying to do something. Box pops up? Hit the continue, yes, allow, enable, OK, or GO GO GADGET buttons! I have even known a few that disabled windows update themselves for various idiotic reasons.

One had it disabled because they "had problems" and some kid "fixed it" by disabling WU (I later found out said kid was a Mac user anyway, and he had just "heard that Windows Update caused problems"). But then they still have problems later and I have to clean it up.

Stuff like that makes me understand why closed ecosystems like iPhone do so well. They're virtually idiot proof. Even stock Android by default herds users away from doing anything too risky, nice mostly-safe app store, etc.

RE: malware
By Ammohunt on 6/6/2012 10:21:07 PM , Rating: 1
anything more complex then a toaster spells trouble.

RE: malware
By spamreader1 on 6/7/2012 9:43:10 AM , Rating: 2
Some toasters catch on fire sometimes with these users too I suspect.

RE: malware
By B3an on 6/6/2012 11:09:33 PM , Rating: 2
And yet so many people dont understand what MS are doing with Win 8 and it's app store. It needs to be done.

RE: malware
By Argon18 on 6/7/2012 10:35:44 AM , Rating: 2
A closed application ecosystem like iPhone does work brilliantly. But you can't do that on a desktop. If Apple did that on OSX, or if Microsoft did that on Windows, it would cease to be a desktop. It would become an appliance at that point. Like a tablet with a keyboard and mouse.

Although perhaps that might actually be a good thing, for the go-go-gadget-buttons crowd at least.

"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." -- Robert Heinlein

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