Mostly overshadowed by this week's discovery of Flame, the massive cyberespionage toolkit, was how Iran's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) took an unprecedented lead role in disseminating information on the infection worldwide and released a removal tool.
For the most part, the organization has kept a low global profile. But the Iranian CERT's reaching out to security vendors with information it had on the Flame malware kit came as surprise to many, and appears to reflect a shift in how the CERT publicly handles targeted attacks and other cyberthreats.
"Iran's CERT seems to be more engaged with the rest of the world than the Iranian government," says Jeffrey Carr, CEO of Taia Global. "Like you'd expect from a CERT, actually."
The Iran National CERT, also known as MAHER, contacted various antivirus vendors with information on Flake -- malware it had been analyzing for months. A member of the CERT, who declined to discuss details of the effect of the attack on Iranian organizations, said in an email response that the CERT had sent AV vendors samples of Flame to alert them and to "help in solving a cyber threat."
He said the Iran National CERT also has sent its homegrown Flame removal tool to Iranian organizations. "As the national CERT, we feel responsible for all the Iranian organizations and companies. We would help both governmental and private sector companies," he said. The tool is also available on the CERT's website, he added.
F-Secure was one of the vendors contacted by MAHER. Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, who was surprised to receive an email from the Iranian CERT, says he still hasn't heard back following their promise to send more information after swapping encryption keys.
Most major AV vendors already have updated their tools to detect Flame, and Hypponen says he wouldn't recommend using the CERT's removal tool. "All regular antivirus detect and remove Flame by now," he says.
While security researchers continue to debate whether Flame is related to Stuxnet and Duqu, the Iranian MAHER organization mentioned the previous attacks on in its online post about Flame. "Following to investigations started since 2010, about Stuxnet and Duqu, Iran National CERT (MAHER) has done a technical survey during past several months. MAHER publishes information about the last found sample for the first time," its site says, referring to the Flame sample it is describing as "the latest detection of this attack."
Gunter Ollmann, vice president of research for Damballa, says he hasn't seen much about MAHER until now, and its emergence is likely a result of Stuxnet and Duqu. "A lot of this has been in reaction to the very targeted attacks they have been experiencing [in Iran] over the past couple of years," Ollmann says. "From what I can tell, [the CERT is] doing an adequate job ... They are learning on the job."
One source working on Flame research says the Iranian CERT mostly had been a closed organization until now. "Once, they said they don't understand why others think they are not cooperative or they don't share samples, etc.," and that appears to be an image they want to shake, he says.
Stephen Cobb, security evangelist for ESET, says Iran is adopting an interesting strategy. "Like any industrialized nation, you need a CERT. Their interest as a nation [may] differ from other nations. This is an interesting approach to take," Cobb says. "Obviously, there are legal limitations on the U.S. and other NATO countries in doing things with Iran. One has to tread carefully there."
[ Iranian officials have been vocal about their plans to build out their cyberattack capabilities, and reportedly launched a $1 billion government program to beef up technologies and expertise -- an indication that Iran is ready to come after the U.S., experts told Congress. See Iranian Cyberthreat To U.S. A Growing Concern. ]
CERTs traditionally are tied to government agencies, but basically operated independently. In Iran's case, it's unclear just how autonomous the organization is from the Iranian government.
The Iranian government has been vocal in the wake of Stuxnet about targeted attacks. Most recently, the Iranian oil ministry revealed that its network and the country's main oil export terminal were infected with a worm attack that reportedly forced the nation to take those systems offline temporarily. Security experts are investigating whether that worm was Flame.
But Iran may not be the only nation that needs to worry about Flame. The United Nations' International Telecommunications Union says it soon will alert its member nations about Flame, according to Reuters. "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," according to the report.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio