U.N. agency plans major warning on ‘Flame’ virus risk; Israel on alert

The U.N. is set to issue a warning about the Flame virus being a dangerous espionage tool that could potentially be used to attack critical infrastructure. (File photo)

A United Nations agency charged with helping member nations secure their national infrastructures plans to issue a sharp warning about the risk of the Flame computer virus that was recently discovered in Iran and other parts of the Middle East, as Israel stepped up its supervision over computer systems of commercial banks.

“This is the most serious (cyber) warning we have ever put out,” said Marco Obiso, cyber security coordinator for the U.N.’s Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union.

The confidential warning will tell member nations that the Flame virus is a dangerous espionage tool that could potentially be used to attack critical infrastructure, he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

“They should be on alert,” he said, adding that he believed Flame was likely built on behalf of a nation state.

The warning is the latest signal that a new era of cyber warfare has begun following the 2010 Stuxnet virus attack that targeted Iran’s nuclear program. The United States explicitly stated for the first time last year that it reserved the right to retaliate with force against a cyber-attack.

A top Israeli minister said on Tuesday the use of cyber weapons, such as the newly uncovered Flame virus, to counter Iran’s nuclear plans would be “reasonable,” hinting at Israel’s possible involvement, AFP reported.

“For anyone who sees the Iranian threat as significant, it is reasonable that he would take different steps, including these, in order to hobble it,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told army radio, just hours after the virus was discovered by Russia’s Kaspersky Lab.

“Israel is blessed with being a country which is technologically rich, and these tools open up all sorts of possibilities for us,” said Yaalon, who is also Israel's strategic affairs minister.

Evidence suggests that the Flame virus may have been built on behalf of the same nation or nations that commissioned the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, according to Kaspersky Lab, the Russian cyber security software maker that took credit for discovering the infections.

“I think it is a much more serious threat than Stuxnet,” Obiso said.

He said the ITU would set up a program to collect data, including virus samples, to track Flame’s spread around the globe and observe any changes in its composition.

Kaspersky Lab said it found the Flame infection after the ITU asked the Russian company to investigate recent reports from Tehran that a mysterious virus was responsible for massive data losses on some Iranian computer systems.

So far, the Kaspersky team has not turned up the original data-wiping virus that they were seeking and the Iranian government has not provided Kaspersky a sample of that software, Obiso said.

A Pentagon spokesman asked about Flame referred reporters to the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS officials declined to respond to specific questions about the virus, but an agency spokesman issued a brief written statement that said: “DHS was notified of the malware and has been working with our federal partners to determine and analyze its potential impact on the U.S.”

Some industry participants appeared skeptical that the threat was as serious as the U.N. agency and Kaspersky had suggested.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Haaretz daily reported on Wednesday that the Shin Bet security service has recently stepped up its supervision over computer systems of commercial banks, out of fear that they could become the target of a cyber attack that could dry up the country’s financial lifeblood.

According to the report, the Shin Bet is seeking to have the banks defined as institutions that are responsible for essential infrastructure, which would enable the agency to supervise them even more closely. All companies that fall under this definition have their computer systems directly supervised by the Shin Bet via the National Information Security Authority.

Israel has suffered several cyber attacks over the past year. The most serious one was when a Saudi hacker posted some 15,000 Israeli credit card numbers online. Hackers, meanwhile, shut down several key Israeli websites, including those of the stock exchange and El Al Israel Airlines.

The Shin Bet responded to those attacks by ordering the Bank of Israel to have banks bar access to their websites from certain sites in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, according to the Haaretz report.

Jeff Moss, a respected hacking expert who sits on the U.S. government’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, said that the ITU and Kaspersky were “over-reacting” to the spread of Flame.

“It will take time to disassemble, but it is not the end of the Net,” said Moss, who serves as chief security officer of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which manages some of the Internet’s key infrastructure.

“We seem to be getting to a point where every time new malware is discovered it’s branded ‘the worst ever,’” said Marcus Carey, a researcher at with cyber security firm Rapid7.

Organizations involved in cyber security keep some of their communications confidential to keep adversaries from developing strategies to combat their defenses and also to keep other hackers from obtaining details about emerging threats that they could use to build other pieces of malicious software.

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