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Crypto breakthrough shows Flame was designed by world-class scientists | Ars Technica

Quick background: Flame is the third of three cyberattacks launched against Iran. Stuxnet, the first, was unleashed under Bush and accelerated under the Obama administration to trip up industrial controllers (PLC’s), making the centrifuges used for uranium enrichment go batshit, thus slowing down Iran’s program. Duqu was the second. It was based on Stuxnet, but apparently was only used to record information (logins,keystrokes,etc.). Duqu and Flame have not yet been claimed by anyone, although Israel and/or the United States are considered the likely culprits.

Dan Goodin from Ars describes how the malware enters a machine and speculates that only a wealthy state could have funded the research required for such a sophisticated bit of code:

The Flame espionage malware that infected computers in Iran achieved mathematic breakthroughs that could only have been accomplished by world-class cryptographers, two of the world’s foremost cryptography experts said.

“We have confirmed that Flame uses a yet unknown MD5 chosen-prefix collision attack,” Marc Stevens and B.M.M. de Weger wrote in an e-mail posted to a cryptography discussion group earlier this week. “The collision attack itself is very interesting from a scientific viewpoint, and there are already some practical implications.”

“Collision” attacks, in which two different sources of plaintext generate identical cryptographic hashes, have long been theorized. But it wasn’t until late 2008 that a team of researchers made one truly practical. By using a bank of 200 PlayStation 3 consoles to find collisions in the MD5 algorithm—and exploiting weaknesses in the way secure sockets layer certificates were issued—they constructed a rogue certificate authority that was trusted by all major browsers and operating systems. Stevens, from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam, and de Weger, of the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven were two of the driving forces behind the research that made it possible.

Flame is the first known example of an MD5 collision attack being used maliciously in a real-world environment. It wielded the esoteric technique to digitally sign malicious code with a fraudulent certificate that appeared to originate with Microsoft. By deploying fake servers on networks that hosted machines already infected by Flame—and using the certificates to sign Flame modules—the malware was able to hijack the Windows Update mechanism Microsoft uses to distribute patches to hundreds of millions of customers.

According to Stevens and de Weger, the collision attack was unlike any that cryptographers have seen before. They arrived at that conclusion after using a custom-designed forensic tool to analyze Flame components.

“More interestingly, the results have shown that not our published chosen-prefix collision attack was used, but an entirely new and unknown variant,” Stevens wrote in astatement distributed on Thursday. “This has led to our conclusion that the design of Flame is partly based on world-class cryptanalysis. Further research will be conducted to reconstruct the entire chosen-prefix collision attack devised for Flame.”

The analysis reinforces theories that researchers from Kaspersky Lab, CrySyS Lab, and Symantec published almost two weeks ago. Namely, Flame could only have been developed with the backing of a wealthy nation-state. Stevens’ and de Weger’s conclusion means that, in addition to a team of engineers who developed a global malware platform that escaped detection for at least two years, Flame also required world-class cryptographers who have broken new ground in their field.

“It’s not a garden-variety collision attack, or just an implementation of previous MD5 collisions papers—which would be difficult enough,” Matthew Green, a professor specializing in cryptography in the computer science department at Johns Hopkins University, told Ars. “There were mathematicians doing new science to make Flame work.”

And, This just in:
Microsoft contains Flame with Windows Update revamp