What is the Flame computer virus?

Flame is a sophisticated type of malware — short for malicious software — capable of infecting myriad computer networks for the purpose of gathering sensitive data. Once a network is infected by Flame, the virus can relay back massive amounts of information through a computer’s facilities.

View Photo Gallery: The Flame virus is one of the most sophisticated ever developed, able to activate computer microphones, log keystrokes and steal data, among other capabilities. Here’s a look at some of the more notable viruses and worms.

How does it work?

Flame is a malware perfect storm, functioning as a backdoor, a Trojan and displaying worm-like features at the same time, according to Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus company.

A backdoor is what it sounds like: an alternative way to tap into sensitive information without using proper authentication channels. As a Trojan, Flame is able to disguise itself as a legitimate file, masquerading as a routine Microsoft software update. And because it exhibits worm-like properties, Flame can replicate itself after infecting a host and spread to other systems inside of a network if prompted by the attackers, as noted by Kim Zetter of Wired Magazine.

Once a computer is infected, Flame can activate its microphones and cameras, monitor keyboard strokes by users, extract geo­location data from saved images, snap screen shots of working computers and even send and receive commands and data through Bluetooth wireless technology.

Why was Flame created?

Flame was created to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, to enable cyber operations that would slow Iran’s alleged plans to develop a nuclear weapon. The virus is a result of a classified U.S.-Israel collaborative project, launched more than five years ago, according to The Washington Post. Flame’s creators hoped their efforts would buy more time for multilateral talks and U.N.-backed sanctions, negating the option of military intervention.

How has it affected the Iranian nuclear program?

Iran’s National Computer Emergency Response Team announced last month that Flame had infiltrated their computer systems, stealing sensitive data from infected computers.

Have there been other attacks/viruses like Flame in the past?

Flame’s sole purpose seems to be espionage. Another virus, dubbed Stuxnet by commercial researchers, also targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities. But in contrast to Flame, its purpose was to damage machines, specifically those used in the uranium enrichment process. Stuxnet was successful in damaging hundreds of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran, setting back Iran’s nuclear program by an estimated one to two years, according to experts.

To see photos from Iran’s quest to build nuclear technology, click below.

More world news coverage:

- Syrian rebels lack firepower but not will

- Mubarak rumors add to chaos in Egypt

- Palestinian court raises questions of bias

- Read more headlines from around the world