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Can YOU crack the Gauss uber-virus encryption?

Appeal for help to break open hidden scrambled payload

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Antivirus experts have called on cryptographers and other clever bods for help after admitting they are no closer to figuring out the main purpose of the newly discovered Gauss supervirus.

While it's known that the complex malware features many information-stealing capabilities, with a specific focus on capturing website passwords, online banking account credentials and system configuration data from infected machines, the content of the virus's encrypted payload is still a mystery.

Kaspersky Lab had tracked Gauss for weeks before announcing its discovery last week. Antivirus experts at the security biz and elsewhere have been burning the midnight oil in the days since, and although progress has been made - for example in analysing its architecture, unique modules and communication methods - the payload encryption is unbroken.

Researchers reckon the hidden binary blob, when decrypted and executed, looks for a program specifically named using an extended character set, such as Arabic or Hebrew. What that program might be remains unclear as long as the encryption remains unbroken.

The general concuss among security experts is that Gauss - like Flame, Duqu and Stuxnet before it - is a nation-state sponsored cyber-espionage toolkit, quite possibly built from the same components as Flame.

Since late May 2012, more than 2,500 Gauss-related infections have been recorded by Kaspersky Lab’s cloud-based security system, with the majority of infections found in the Middle East. Many of these infections have appeared in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Iran. As previously reported, experts reckon that the super-malware is aimed at tracking targets rather than stealing online banking passwords.

Gauss's secret encrypted payload is located in the USB data-stealing modules.

“The purpose and functions of the encrypted payload currently remain a mystery,” explained Aleks Gostev, chief security expert at Kaspersky Lab. “The use of cryptography and the precautions the authors have used to hide this payload indicate its targets are high profile. The size of the payload is also a concern. It’s big enough to contain coding that could be used for cyber-sabotage, similar to Stuxnet’s SCADA [industrial machine controller] code. Decrypting the payload will provide a better understanding of its overall objective and the nature of this threat.”

Antivirus experts at the Russian security outfit launched an appeal today for anyone with an interest in cryptography, reverse engineering or mathematics to help find the decryption keys and unlock the hidden payload. More details and a technical description of the problem are available in a blog post here.

Kaspersky issued a similar appeal for help from the wider IT community in helping to determine the mystery computing language used to create key components of Duqu, another espionage tool. Old-school programmers quickly helped Kaspersky to conclude that the so-called Duqu Framework was developed using plain old Object-Oriented C. ®

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