JERUSALEM, Israel -- A Russian-based cyber-security firm announced the discovery of a powerful computer spyware program that has invaded computers in Iran and several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Kaspersky Lab, which named the data-collecting spyware "Flame," said it was the "most sophisticated cyber-weapon yet unleashed," as much as 20 times more powerful than any other program.
Though different in size and scope from the Stuxnet virus that infected Iranian computers at the Bushehr plant in 2010, Flame's complexity and wide distribution indicate that, like Stuxnet, it was developed by a country, not by private hackers.
Iran was quick to claim it had isolated and removed the malware with an anti-virus program it had developed.
According to Kaspersky Lab, the spyware has infiltrated computers in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Sudan and even Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon told Israel Radio Monday that any number of Western countries viewing Iran's nuclear program as a potential threat could have developed the program.
"Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it," Ya'alon said, while noting that Israel's sophisticated hi-tech capabilities "open all sorts of opportunities for us." He also said "Israel is susceptible to cyber attacks and is taking measures to protect itself."
Because of its size, Flame's modules are not all loaded together, researchers explained. Once the 20-megabyte virus has infected a computer, it begins to capture a variety of data, including emails, instant messaging, usernames, and passwords. It's capable of recording conversations and scanning Bluetooth devices, recording names and phone numbers. It can also gain access to administrative accounts and transfer stolen data to command centers.
The firm's chief security expert, Alexander Gostev, said the spyware is "one of the most complex threats ever discovered."
"It's pretty fantastic and incredible in its complexity," Gostev said, noting that analyzing and fully understanding the code could take up to10 years.
"It took us half a year to analyze Stuxnet," Gostev said. "This is 20 times more complicated. It will take us 10 years to fully understand everything."
The Stuxnet worm and its sister program, Duqu, were used to damage Iranian computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Nantaz. Iran admitted at the time the malware damaged centrifuges.
The anti-virus firm Symantec said it was obvious that "an organized, well-funded group of people" developed the latest malware, which has also shown up in Russia, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and Austria.