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Iran: If the Madi cyber-strike was us it would've been another Stuxnet

'Cos we're as good as US/Israel! Analysts divided

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Analysis Iranian state media has angrily rejected suggestions that the Madi cyber espionage campaign is anything to do with the Islamic Republic.

Madi had claimed more than 800 victims located in Iran, Israel, Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to the results of an eight month investigation into the cyber-espionage tool by Kaspersky Lab and Seculert, first publicised on Tuesday.

Where previous high profile attacks such as Flame, Duqu, and Stuxnet utilised zero-day vulnerabilities or forged digital certificates, Madi relies on basic well-established engineering techniques to infect targeted computers. The attackers send spear-phishing emails to the targeted entities with different attachments (PowerPoint documents, fake Word documents, fake images, etc) which have the malware embedded.

Attacks came under the guise of a video of a missile test, PowerPoint files featuring serene wilderness images and a copy of a Daily Beast article discussing electronic warfare between Israel and Iran, among others.

Researchers at Kaspersky Labs described the techniques used by the malware as amateurish and rudimentary, an assessment shared by Aviv Raff, CTO at Seculert.

"The malware itself is written is either an amateurish, or written in a rush in order to start the campaign as early as possible," Raff told El Reg. "It looks like native Persian speakers" created the malware, he added.

Iranian state media outlet reacted with indignation to perceived suggestions that either its spies or its ordinary citizens were only capable of producing lame malware, such as Madi.

"If this was a product of Iran it would be professional and at least as advanced as Stuxnet and Flame," an English language editorial carried by the semi-official FARS news agency said.

The story bristled at the perceived suggestion that Madi was developed in response to the Flame and Stuxnet malware attacks against Iran's controversial nuclear weapon's programme.

Madi (AKA Mahdi), named after files used in the malware, references the moniker of the Muslim messiah expected to cleanse the world of wrongdoing and bestow peace and justice before Judgment Day.

Whatever the significance or otherwise of this name it's generally agreed that the malware is primarily designed to steal information from compromised machines. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) of Madi's cyber espionage targets were based in Israel, according to an analysis by Symantec.

Targets included oil companies, US-based think tanks, a foreign consulate, as well as various governmental agencies some of which were in the energy sector. Isolated infections have occurred in the US and New Zealand, but most have been clustered in the Middle East according to Symantec.

Kaspersky and Seculert, by contrast, argue that the highest concentration of Madi's confirmed 800 victims is in Iran. The malware has claimed 387 victims in Iran and 54 in Israel, the duo report.

The trojan has been communicating with command-and-control servers hosted in Canada, Iran and, more recently, Azerbaijan. Madi allows remote hackers to steal sensitive files from infected Windows computers, monitor email and instant messages exchanges, record audio, log keystrokes, and take screenshots of victims' activities. Gigabytes of data were stolen over the last eight months.

Madi has emerged as the likely pathogen behind the malware-based attacks against Bank Hapoalim in Israel in Feb 2012.

Security experts are split over the likelihood or otherwise that a nation-state might be behind the attack.

"Targets like Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might suggest involvement of a nation state, however our research has not found evidence that this is the case. Instead, the current research indicates these attacks are being conducted by an unknown Farsi-speaking hacker with a broad agenda," Symantec concludes.

However Seculert's Raff is more open to the state-backed possibility, while dismissing any possible suggestion that Madi might be the work of regular cybercrooks.

"It's unclear if it is state-sponsored or not. But it does look like a campaign which requires large investment or financial backing," Raff told El Reg. "This malware also records sound and steals 27 different file types. So, I find it unlikely that the motive is cybercrime."

"It is definitely suited for surveillance against the targeted entities," he concluded. ®

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