Skywiper – Fanning the ‘Flames’ of Cyberwarfare

A few weeks ago, Iran reported intensified cyberattacks on its energy sector that they observed as a direct continuation of the Stuxnet and Duqu attacks.

Over the weekend, the IR Cert (Iran’s emergency response team) published a new report that describes this attack as Flame and/or Flamer. Some other news agencies also called  the attack Viper. The complex functionality of the malware is controlled by command servers, of which there are possibly dozens. The malware is also capable of slowly spreading via USB drives.

CrySys Lab, a Hungarian security team, noticed that a complex threat it had been analyzing for weeks was clearly the same threat as Flamer. They published a large, preliminary document, several dozen pages in size, that described the complex malware. The report shows that a lot more work has to be done to analyze the full details of this malware, as it has some extraordinary complexity.

Previously, other cyberthreats such as Stuxnet and Duqu required months of analysis; this threat is clearly a magnitude more complex. Just to give an idea of the complexity, one of its smallest encrypted modules is more than 70,000 lines of C decompiled code, which contains over 170 encrypted “strings”!

Evidently, the threat has been developed over many years, possibly by a large group or dedicated team.

We found publicly available reports from antispyware companies, and log files in public help forums that could indicate infections of early variants of Skywiper in Europe and Iran several years ago (for example, in March 2010). Skywiper appears to be more wildly spread than Duqu, with similarly large numbers of variants.

Skywiper is a modular, extendable, and updateable threat. It is capable of, but not limited to, the following key espionage functions:

- Scanning network resources
- Stealing information as specified
- Communicating to control servers over SSH and HTTPS protocols
- Detecting the presence of over 100 security products (AV, antispyware, FW, etc)
- Using both kernel- and user-mode logic
- Employing complex internal functionality using Windows APC calls and and threads start manipulation, and code injections to key processes
- Loading as part of Winlogon.exe and then injecting itself into Internet Explorer and services
- Concealing its presence as ~ named temp files, just like Stuxnet and Duqu
- Capable of attacking new systems over USB flash memory and local network (spreading slowly)
- Creating screen captures
- Recording voice conversations
- Running on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 systems
- Containing known exploits, such as the print spooler and lnk exploits found in Stuxnet
- Using SQLite database to store collected information
- Using a custom database for attack modules (this is very unusual, but shows the modularity and extendability of the malware)
- Often located on nearby systems: a local network for both control and target infection cases
- Using PE-encrypted resources

To summarize, the threat shows great similarity to Stuxnet and Duqu in some of its ways of operation, yet its code base and implementation are very different, and much more complex and robust in its basic structure.

Skywiper’s main executable files:

Windows\System32\mssecmgr.ocx – Main module

Misleading Program Information Blocks

According to its program information block, the main module pretends to be written by Microsoft Corporation. It claims to be a “Windows Authentication Client” for Microsoft Windows Version 5.1 (2600 Build). Several other modules also claim to be Microsoft Windows components. However, none of the files analyzed so far are signed with a valid (or even possibly stolen) key, as it was the case with Duqu and Stuxnet.

Further key filenames of the threat can include:


Mutex usage

The threat files also use the TH_POOL_SHD_PQOISNG_#PID#SYNCMTX Mutex name to identify already infected systems, a common technique in modern malware. The #PID# is the process ID of the process in which the injection of the threat occurred.

I change my name; I change my extension

The threat files can change both filenames and extensions, according to specific control server requests, as well as configuration usage. In some cases, Skywiper detects specific antivirus software. The malware might then change the extension of the executable files (DLLs) from OCX to TMP, for example. However, we have not always seen this functionality on affected systems, especially if the threat has been installed prior to the security product in question.

Skywiper’s main module is over 6MB in size, while the completely deployed set is close to 20MB. Yes, this is a lot of code for malware, but this is necessary to carry the complex libraries such as Zlib, LUA interpreter, SQLite support, custom database support code, and so on.

Encryption includes simple obfuscation like XOR with a byte value. The XOR key, 0xAE, has appeared in some other cases–showing a potential relationship to Duqu and Stuxnet, as they also used this value. However, Stuxnet and Duqu always used other values in conjunction with this byte, which included dates of possible meaning.

Other than the above, Skywiper does not show a direct relationship in its code to Stuxnet or Duqu at this point. It uses a similar yet more complex structure, which in many ways reminds researchers of these attacks. In some ways it could be a parallel project, as the early date may suggest. The attack files showed recent development in January and August 2011, according to some of the leftover date values in its files. The dates in the file headers have been purposely changed (claiming to be from 1994, etc.), but export-table date values and dates elsewhere in the files indicate 2011.

The main module of Skywiper starts via the registry, over an exported function:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\CurrentControlSet\Control\Lsa\Authentication Packages
- mssecmgr.ocx

Initial infections gathered by our network sensors are shown on the map below:

Generally, attackers try to conceal their presence by infecting locations unrelated to the main targets, possibly to further conceal their identity, and then use these locations as control servers. Continuing research will certainly need to take this into consideration.

McAfee antivirus products will detect and clean the threat as W32/Skywiper from infected systems. Our initial data indicates that there are multiple variants of this threat in the field.