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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