Security researchers often play the role of Sherlock, but they don't always have such telling clues to sleuth. The hackers behind the Flame malware, which has been used in nation-state espionage attacks, have left a trail of hints that may help authorities tag the culprits.
The clues also point to evidence that the attack was under way and much broader than once thought.
Let's back up a minute. Known as W32.Flamer, Symantec describes this malware as a sophisticated espionage tool. Flamer made headlines after cyber attacks on Middle Eastern countries earlier in 2012. Both Symantec and Kaspersky are now releasing new analyses of the command-and-control (C&C) servers used in those attacks.
"The servers were set up on March 25, 2012, and May 18, 2012, respectively. On both occasions, within only a few hours of the server being setup, the first interaction with a computer compromised with Flamer was recorded," Symantec wrote in its blog. "The servers would go on to control at least a few hundred compromised computers over the next few weeks of their existence."
Symantec goes on to reveal that the servers contained the same control framework, but were used for distinct purposes. Symantec estimates the server that was set up in March, for example, collected almost 6 GB of data from compromised computers in just over a week. By contrast, the firm reports, the server that was set up in May 2012 received just 75 MB of data and was used solely to distribute one command module to the compromised computers.
"Command-and-control happens through a Web called Newsforyou. The application processes the W32.Flamer client interactions and provides a simple control panel. The control panel allows the attackers to upload packages of code to deliver to compromised computers, and to download packages containing stolen client data," Symantec said.
"This application does not appear to be exclusively used by Flamer. It contains functionality that allows it to communicate with computers compromised with multiple malware identifiers using different protocols."
For its part, Kaspersky reveals that a European company with data centers in another European Union country own one of the C&C servers it analyzed. Kaspersky managed to get a server image that was an OpenVZ file-system container.
"Our first impression was that the control panel appeared to be implemented by script-kiddies. It looked like a very early alpha version of a botnet C&C control panel," Kaspersky wrote in its blog. "However, revisiting this picture one more time made everything clear -- the attackers deliberately chose this interface."
Unlike traditional cyber-criminals who implement eye-candy Web interfaces which the average user can easily recognize as a botnet control panel, the security firm said, the developers of the Flame C&C made it very generic and unpretentious.
"The C&C developers didn't use professional terms such as bot, botnet, infection, malware-command or anything related in their control panel. Instead they used common words like data, upload, download, client, news, blog, ads, backup etc.," Kaspersky said. "We believe this was deliberately done to deceive hosting company sys-admins who might run unexpected checks."