Security experts have discovered tantalising evidence that the eerily sophisticated Flame cyberweapon discovered in May was part of a family of four programs whose development goes back to 2006.
An analysis of Flame's Command and Control (C&C) servers by Kaspersky Lab in conjunction with Symantec, Germany's CERT-Bund/BSI and ITU-IMPACT found a stripped-down interface which had been designed to attract as little attention as possible from hosting admins who chanced upon it.
Although all commands were uploaded as server scripts rather than through a GUI, the team found the protocol handlers referenced four clients', SP, SPE, FL and IP, where 'FL' is understood to relate to Flame (a previous analysis identified 'Flame' as its most likely name from text buried in its code).
This leaves the mystery of the three unidentified clients; as far as Kaspersky can tell none of them are references to Stuxnet or Gauss, two other cyberweapons already pulled apart by its researchers.
"Obviously, this means there are at least three other undiscovered cyber-espionage or cyber-sabotage tools created by the same authors: SP, SPE and IP," says Kaspersky Lab.
Evidence has been mounting that cyberweapons have been around for a lot longer than realised and the latest analysis backs that up. Scripts appear to have been run from four different authors going back as far as December 2006.
This might explain why Flame itself was so vast and complex by malware standards, comprising 20 or more modules, a sign of a longstanding development.
Data stolen by the malware was removed on a regular schedule after being carefully encrypted using PKI, making recovery of the content impossible even some were found. But it was pilfering huge volumes of data nonetheless, 5GB in a single week at one point.
On the basis of infected IPs connecting to the C&C, Kaspersky reckons that the number of 'victims' of Flame must have exceeded 10,000, with the most likely targets being Iran (3702 bot IPs) and Sudan (1280 bot IPs) connecting during a seven-day period in March 2012.
Where does all this leave cyberweapons research? The most likely protagonists are the US and Israel, which have been using covert software for more than half a decade on a previously unsuspected scale. These programs certainly pre-date the current Obama administration.
A few sippets have emerged to explain what Flame was for with one claim being that it was an intelligence-gathering tool to aid the 2010 Stuxnet attacks on Iran's nuclar installations.